During the 2012 flu season, Jenny Vance saw close to half her workforce come down with the flu. Each ailing worker missed four to six days at her Indianapolis-based company LeadJen. As a result, at the height of the infection, the sales lead generation company saw its billable hours shrink by a shocking 15 percent.
“It seemed like an epidemic,” Vance says. “It was a domino effect. As soon as one person got it, it was like everyone got it.” Indeed, the president herself came down with the flu that season—twice.
Healthy staffers took on double and triple workloads, but it was impossible to completely replace the client-specific expertise of those absent due to flu. “What it meant for us was we were playing catch-up and there were some projects where because of sheer illness we got a little behind,” Vance says.
In 2013, experiences like Vance’s are going to be far more common. This year’s flu season started in November, more than a month earlier than normal, and shows no signs of peaking. On top of that, flu viruses will continue to be spread for the next two or three months. All told, it’s shaping up to be the worst flu season in the past decade.
The annual human cost of flu makes a one-time catastrophe like Hurricane Sandy look almost pedestrian. From 1976 to today, each year sees more than 200,000 flu-related hospitalizations and from 3,000 to 49,000 deaths, according to the CDC. The economic cost is also steep. Nearly 111 million workdays are lost due to flu each season, according to Flu.gov, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ website for flu information. The dollar figure for all those sick days and lost productivity is approximately $7 billion.
Forms of Flu
For a small-business owner to deal effectively with the very real threat posed by the flu, it’s first necessary to understand what is happening this year.
Seasonal Flu: The current flu outbreak is called seasonal flu, and it happens every winter in varying degrees of severity.
Avian Flu: Also known as “bird flu” and normally occurs in birds. The infrequent avian flu varieties that can infect humans are primarily a risk to poultry workers, animal handlers and healthcare workers.
Pandemic Flu: A true epidemic, often of global scale, that occurs when a new flu strain appears that is easily spread between humans. The worst and most famous flu pandemic occurred in 1918, when more than 20 million died worldwide. Pandemics are infrequent, however, and there is no pandemic presently.
Seasonal flu, from a business owner’s perspective, is bad enough. Fortunately, there are many resources available to help employers minimize the effect of flu on their businesses. The Small Business Administration lists seven steps employers can take, ranging from designating a workplace flu coordinator to establishing an emergency communication. For most firms, however, a simpler approach will suffice.
Given the widespread nature of the flu, most workplaces will be affected eventually. So employers should get ready by identifying key workers and making plans for filling their shoes should one or more be temporarily laid low by the flu.
The flu shot. According to the CDC, the most important single action one can take to reduce the spread and impact of flu is to get a flu shot. The CDC recommends businesses inform employees of nearby locations to get flu shots and even hold vaccination clinics in the workplace.
Stay home to prevent infecting others. Non-vaccination approaches include encouraging ill or feverish employees to stay home. If you allow them to miss a day or two without being penalized, they're less likely to infect others in the office.
Allow telecommuting and minimize meetings. Employers should also consider instituting telework policies to allow for contributions from workers who are well enough to work but not well enough to come to work. Finally, consider limiting meetings, because flu virus is spread through close contact.
Wash hands frequently and provide hand sanitzier. The CDC also says that taking anti-viral medications, when prescribed by a physician, is important for limiting the impact and spread of flu.
Breaking the Flu Pattern
The flu has been with humanity for millennia and it is likely to be around for a long time in the future. No strategy is guaranteed to work when it comes to avoiding flu. Vaccinations, for instance, only protect against one strain and, as is often the case, there is more than one strain circulating.
Vaccinations also take two weeks to become effective. And because of the early onset of flu this season, current supplies of vaccines are low, with some locations reporting no stocks on hand. You can find a map showing where flu shots are available in your area at HealthMap Vaccine Finder.
You also must consider that some employees refuse to get flu shots, nor can employers control whether people you work with, including customers and employees of other companies, get vaccinated.
But, overall, flu is a manageable challenge, at least according to the experience at LeadJen. After the last flu season, Vance and her colleagues decided to hold a workplace vaccination clinic offering free flu shots to employees. Forty-eight of nearly 60 workers, including Vance, got the shots. And this year, so far they have had only three people sick with flu, compared with 21 last year.
The shots, provided by a local pharmacy, cost LeadJen just $25 each, Vance says. Next year, she plans to do more communication and promotion and investigate teaming up to offer a clinic with other employers in the same building. But in the meantime, she considers the anti-flu campaign a solid business move, as well as an opportunity to show employees that she cares.
“It’s a very small investment,” Vance says, “for what I’ve found to be a very positive impact.”