Encourage vaccines, antiviral meds; ensure technology support for working at home
Because this year’s flu vaccine is not as effective against a current, mutated strain of the influenza virus, employers may be wondering if they should take extra precautions to keep their workers healthy.
“The flu is unpredictable, but it looks like it could be a rough season,” said Alan Kohll, founder and CEO of TotalWellness, a national wellness services provider.
In early December, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sent an advisory to doctors noting that more than half of the 85 influenza virus samples it had analyzed were different than the virus strains included in this year’s vaccine, signaling that there has been a mutation, or a drift, of the strain.
This season’s most commonly reported strain of the virus is influenza A (H3N2). In the past, influenza A has been associated with higher rates of hospitalization and death than other strains, especially for people at high risk for complications, such as the very young, the elderly and those with chronic health conditions.
There are several things employers can do to help prepare for the potential impact of this year’s flu season:
- Encourage vaccinations. During the 2012-13 flu season, 12,337 people were hospitalized with flu-related illness and 149 children died, according to CDC surveillance data. Ninety percent of those children were unvaccinated. While the flu vaccine is not as protective against a mutated strain, it can still decrease the severity of illness caused by such a strain. Employers can make it easy to get vaccinated by hosting onsite flu shot clinics or offering flu shot voucher programs. “Even this year, protection against half the flu strains is far better than protection against none, which is what you get with no vaccine,” said Dr. Derek van Amerongen, chief wellness officer at HumanaVitality, a Chicago-based wellness program sponsored by health insurance company Humana. “It may not be as highly effective as we usually see, but it is still the best preventive step we can take.”
- Educate employees about flu symptoms and how influenza is spread. “Remind your staff about the symptoms and seriousness of the flu so they understand that if they come in sick, they may infect the whole” workplace, Kohll said. Preventive measures include healthy eating, plenty of sleep, regular washing of hands, covering the mouth when coughing or sneezing, and drinking lots of fluids.
- Review paid time off and sick leave policies with employees so they feel they can take time off if they get the flu. Ensure remote technology is up to date and can support those who work from home. “Creating a culture of wellness where employees know that they can take a sick day, work from home when they are ill, or that there’s a contingency plan to help maintain normal business operations in the event they’re out sick can all help mitigate that feeling of ‘I have to go into work,’ ” Kohll said.
- Encourage antiviral medications for people who are just starting to experience flu symptoms. Such medications can make the flu milder and shorter.
- Insist that sick employees stay home or work from home. “Try to put it in context for them,” Kohll said. “The more people who go to work sick, the more it spreads, resulting in a bigger drain on the company. Sure, you might miss that one individual for a few days, but it’s better than dealing with a flu outbreak around the entire [workplace].” Said van Amerongen: “Reminding people that they can and should work from home can help break down the outdated notion that good employees ‘work through it.’ ”
- Set an example. If you’re a manager, don’t come to work sick. This tells subordinates that if they are committed to their work, they should come in no matter how ill they feel. “Senior leaders need to stay home when they’re sick so employees feel comfortable to do the same,” van Amerongen said. “Senior leaders can make it a regular point to midlevel managers that staying home when sick is an organizational expectation.” Said Kohll: “I can only think of a few circumstances where a person absolutely must come into work, but then you have to ask—how productive is that sick employee? They won’t be as sharp or efficient when suffering from the flu.”
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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