By Jocelyn Sivalingam | BenefitsPRO
While this year’s flu season may be winding down, now is the time to start planning ahead to protect your employees and your business ahead of next year’s flu season.
Influenza can have a devastating impact on individuals and organizations. While this year’s flu season may be winding down, now is the time to start planning ahead to protect your employees and your business ahead of next year’s flu season.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates approximately 1 in 5 people get the flu each year, leading to tens of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths. While these numbers may be startling, there are ways employers can help minimize the risk of their employees becoming sick—specifically, the flu vaccine.
Recent studies indicate that getting a flu shot can reduce an individual’s chances of getting the flu by up to 60 percent. This impact can be amplified within an organization, helping to prevent illness from spreading among the workforce and reducing time employees spend away from the office while sick.
An increasing number of employers recognize the benefits of offering on-site flu shots to employees. A 2017 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found that nearly 60 percent of employers offer on-site flu vaccinations. Some organizations may provide vouchers to get vaccinations at clinics or other health care providers. This trend is yet another sign of the increasing financial and organizational importance of flu prevention to the business community.
How the flu impacts the workplace
When employees are sick, typically one of two scenarios plays out. Either the employee stays home, causing absenteeism, where they can also make family members sick (and require more time to care for relatives), or the employee comes to work sick.
In the latter case, at work while ill with the flu, he or she is not performing optimally. This is presenteeism. Additionally, an ill person actively spreads the virus to coworkers, multiplying the number of infections. For an unlucky employee, or one who may have an underlying condition, such as asthma or diabetes, the results can prove catastrophic. Both situations reduce productivity, increase costs and cause suffering.
The CDC estimates annual direct costs in the U.S. related to flu (i.e., medications, laboratory services, hospital and outpatient visits) to be approximately $10.4 billion, and while estimates vary, there is a huge economic burden counted in the billions of dollars related to sick days and lost productivity from influenza. This includes millions of days absent, as well as millions of doctor’s visits and thousands of hospital stays.
Further, when employees are often sick or absent, the overall culture of a workplace may suffer. Employees may feel pressured to come in sick to keep up with work, or they may face challenges completing projects due to colleagues missing time, creating negative consequences. The flu can take a major toll on organizations in terms of both direct costs and lost productivity, making it in everyone’s best interest to prevent the spread of this virus.
The value of the flu vaccine
Flu vaccination has many benefits for employees and their employers. When organizations offer onsite flu shots, it’s convenient for all, increasing the chances that their workforce will be immunized. Currently less than half of adults get the flu shot each year, but when organizations offer the vaccine at work, the CDC reports that 85 percent of employees participate.
Offering the vaccine at no cost further helps ensure employees take advantage of the opportunity, improving the level of immunity in the workforce. As mentioned, the flu shot reduces the risk of getting sick by up to 60 percent. This means employees are much more likely to stay healthy and not give the flu to others.
Even when the vaccine is not a perfect match for the circulating virus strain, the CDC notes that vaccination still offers benefits, including reduced flu severity, lower chance of death, ICU admission, and length of hospitalization, making it important to immunize annually. Studies show influenza vaccination can help reduce sick days due to respiratory illness as well as the spread of illness when employees come to work sick. This decrease in absenteeism and presenteeism has a positive impact on productivity, and reducing the number of employees contracting influenza each year can help organizations reduce health care costs.
Consider that the cost of lost productivity due to the flu is approximately $1,000 per employee on average. This does not include the direct medical costs associated with being sick, including doctor’s visits, medication and more. Alternatively, the flu shot costs an average of $32 per person. While the flu shot may not prevent everyone from getting sick, it can significantly reduce the risk and number of people affected, making the potential cost savings easy to see.
Strategies to reduce flu at work
While the flu shot is the most effective strategy to reducing the risk of getting sick, other basic healthy habits encourage the workforce to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses. These include covering the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, regular hand washing (after coughs and sneezes, before meals and after the restroom). Having hand sanitizer available when washing facilities are not easily available is recommended. Inform workers about flu and other contagious respiratory disease symptoms. Facilitating appropriate use of sick time and making policies known helps keep those who are contagious from coming to work sick.
Employees might need motivation to take advantage of vaccination opportunities at work. Incentivizing flu shots has the potential to be a major driver, whether through raffle entries or wellness points toward a larger goal. Further, organization leaders should set examples as role models by getting flu shots themselves and publicizing their participation. Note that ongoing communications are crucial to reinforcing the value and importance of the flu vaccine and other healthy habits. Reminders about opportunities to get vaccinated as well as strategies to stay healthy via email, posters and more will help to ensure high flu prevention awareness.
Integrate with other programs to maximize impact
To maximize efforts for flu vaccine promotion, making it part of the organization’s well-being strategy and offering flu shots with health screenings can boost participation. Acting on prevention with flu shots and screenings can positively impact company culture, showing that the organization truly cares about their employees.
Offering the flu shot at work is an easy way to reap benefits for both organizations and their employees, contributing to a healthier workforce and bottom line.