How to fight the flu and maintain productivity

An unusually active flu season has arrived in the Northern Hemisphere, hampering companies that continue to rely on barebones staffing during a period of global economic uncertainty.
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that seasonal flu outbreaks cost US employers $10.4 billion on average in direct costs of hospitalisations and outpatient visits. That does not include indirect costs that result from absenteeism and lost productivity. The CDC has said the 2012–13 flu season started early, and CDC Director Tom Frieden last month called the season “worse than average.”

The flu was at epidemic levels in early and mid-January in the United States, as determined by statistics that showed that greater than 7.3% of deaths in 122 cities measured were blamed on the flu or pneumonia. And while instances of the flu have waned since then, it is still top-of-mind for many managers.

One of the best ways for businesses to prevent the spread of flu and other illness is to convince workers that they need to stay home when they are sick. Emma Swain, CPA, the CEO of St. Supery Vineyards and Winery in Rutherford, Calif., said she encourages her 120 employees to stay home when they are sick.

“If you are sick, we don’t want to see you,” Swain said, adding that she follows her own advice. “… If I have a fever, I don’t go to work. Because everyone else working is so much more important than me working. If I get ten people sick, that’s a problem.”

The rise of “presenteeism”

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to convince people to stay home when they believe their jobs are in jeopardy. The 13th annual Absence Management survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) and British insurer Simplyhealth, released in 2012, showed that absenteeism in the UK dropped by an average of about one day per employee per year, but “presenteeism” – working while sick – increased.

John Challenger, chief executive of international outplacement sourcing consultant Challenger, Gray and Christmas, said that workers may think they are proving their value to the company when they show their toughness by reporting for work when they are ill. But presenteeism just leads to more sick workers and further damage to employers. An effective leave policy is critical in preventing an office-wide outbreak of the flu.

“You want to encourage workers to stay home when they are sick so they do not spread illness to co-workers,” Challenger said in a news release. “You also want them to stay home to care for sick children so they are not forced to go to school and spread the virus to other kids.”

US Bureau of Labor Statistics data from March 2012 show that 66% of US civilian workers receive paid sick leave. That’s down one percentage point from the previous year.

Preventive measures

Although it is impossible to completely limit employees’ exposure to the flu, preventive measures can help. Mick Armstrong, CPA, CGMA, the CFO of Idaho-based tool manufacturer Micro 100, said his company pays for employees’ vaccinations, and employees’ family members can come to the company flu shot clinic and pay for their own vaccinations. About 60% of employees participate.

Micro 100 also has a wellness programme that gives employees a 15% discount on their health insurance premium if they meet health goals in five areas, which are confidentially monitored by a health screening company, Armstrong said. More than 85% of employees participate in the programme.

The company has not had any confirmed absences for flu in its critical production areas during this flu season, and hasn’t seen a significant impact from the flu in several years, Armstrong said. “I believe our wellness programme and flu vaccination has a lot to do with that,” he said.

Challenger said healthy employees who can’t work from home, such as retail and hands-on service providers, should enforce hygienic practices as well as a three-foot buffer between employees. Challenger also suggests:

  • Increasing the number of shifts to reduce the number of people working in the office at one time.
  • Limiting meetings to avoid gathering large groups of workers in a confined space. Conference calls and video conferencing are alternatives.
  • Expanding telecommuting, which keeps workers off public transportation and out of the office.
  • Providing hand sanitiser and no-touch trash cans.
  • Assigning a workplace illness coordinator to monitor absenteeism rates, coordinate leave and inform employees of company measures to prevent or respond to outbreaks.

The bottom line is that the flu can harm productivity and profits, and workers and employers can both play a role in limiting its effects. But it may be difficult to convince fearful workers that they – and the company – are better off if they stay home when they are sick.

“The economy is still on shaky ground, and many workers continue to be worried about losing their jobs, despite the fact that annual layoffs are at the lowest level since the late 1990s,” Challenger said. “In this environment, workers are reluctant to call in sick or even use vacation days. Of course, this has significant negative consequences for the workplace, where the sick worker is not only performing at a reduced capacity, but also likely to infect others.”

Related CGMA Magazine content:

Fewer Workplace Absences, More Sick Workers, More Trouble for Employers”: A decrease in UK employees calling in sick for work demonstrates that “presenteeism” is rising.

CGMA Magazine senior editor Neil Amato contributed to this report.

Ken Tysiac ( is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.