It can start with a single sniffle, and before you know it there’s a raging case of flu in the workplace. An expert tells us how to stop it cold.
The flu is pretty synonymous with winter, but working in a typical office environment – close quarters, stale air, frequent contact between people – doesn’t help either, says Dr Alan Hampson, chairman of the Influenza Specialist Group (ISG), who is currently conducting research about flu in the workplace and HR’s role.
Despite increased awareness and vigilance, more than 90,000 Australians were diagnosed with flu last year, and 90 per cent of Australians admitted to going to work sick, according to ISG research. Presenteeism is definitely a factor, says Dr Hampson, and many employees feel obligated to come to work no matter what.
“The most common reasons for people coming to work sick are that they don’t want to inconvenience their colleagues, or they don’t think their symptoms are severe enough to merit staying home,” he says. “However, we know that many Australians find it frustrating when their coworkers show up to work ill.”
It’s not just the individual who suffers, though. Businesses need to actively discourage sick workers from coming in because they can be a liability, says Dr Hampson. Anyone who has had the flu is familiar with that foggy-headed feeling, slower reaction time and impaired decision making. In fact, some studies say that working with the flu is just as bad as coming in with two whiskey shots under your belt.
Being ‘under the influenza’ is a constant challenge for workplaces, says Dr Hampson. About 10 per cent of workplace absences can be attributed to flu or related illnesses, and it takes an average of three days for employees to shake their symptoms. However, there are ways that workplaces can nip the problem in the bud – or at least reduce the risk of illness spreading.
Offices act as petri dishes, and viruses can linger on surfaces long after the sick employee has left the building. Dr Hampson recommends regularly disinfecting surfaces that people come into contact with, such as keyboards, desks and phone receivers.
It sounds a bit nanny-ish, but encouraging employees to regularly wash their hands and properly dispose of tissues is also a way to stall the spread of flu in the workplace. There is also etiquette around coughing and sneezing in the office, says Dr Hampson. You don’t have to walk around the office with a surgical mask and gloves, but if you feel that familiar tickle at the back of your throat, maybe just sneeze into your shoulder instead of your hands.
Businesses should also take advantage of vaccination services that conduct immunisations on-site. Although workplaces can’t mandate that employees get vaccinated (except in some health-related fields), Dr Hampson says that when organisations offer employees the chance to get vaccinated, absenteeism goes down. Offering workers vaccines also protects vulnerable employees, such as older workers, pregnant women and those with underlying medical conditions
Although there is an initial cost, Dr Hampson says that investing in tools to stop the spread of flu, such as vaccines and disinfectant wipes, has bigger benefits in the end, including better engagement and productivity from healthy workers.
“Employers need to look at it as a way to reduce absenteeism,” he says. Ultimately, employers need to break the habit of ill employees coming in and trying to power through the flu. It’s all right to take that sickie, so long as it’s for valid reasons.