Every year, between 5 and 20 percent of the population gets the flu. For businesses, losing between 5 percent and 20 percent of a workforce for an average of three days is expensive, making the need to communicate outbreaks critical. The U.S. Department of Labor has estimated the annual cost of flu-related absenteeism to be nearly $20 billion; but absenteeism may not be the biggest flu-related problem businesses have to manage.
A potentially bigger problem is “presenteeism” - employees turning up for work with the flu, and consequently underperforming while sharing the infection with work colleagues. Not only does this increase the rate of flu-related absenteeism throughout the business, but employees turning up for work when they are ill generally take longer to recover and often end up taking time off anyway.
Where presenteeism can be become a serious problem is when flu infections spread to employees with a high risk of complications. The high-risk group includes older employees, pregnant employees, and employees with medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and metabolic disorders. If high-risk employees contract the flu, and then develop complications, the outcome can be fatal.
Best Practices for Preventing Flu Outbreaks in the Workplace
The best practices for preventing flu outbreaks in the workplace include encouraging flu vaccinations, maintaining good air quality in the office environment, and discouraging employees from turning up to work when they feel unwell. In order to support the third of these best practices, businesses should develop policies relating to sick leave, the transfer of duties, and what to do if feeling unwell while traveling to the workplace - and distribute these policies to all employees.
When an employee arrives at the workplace displaying symptoms of flu - or develops the symptoms of flu while working - they should be sent home. However, removing an infected employee from the environment may not necessarily prevent a flu outbreak. Flu particles can remain suspended in the air for up to an hour (which is why maintaining good air quality is so important) and, in droplet form (i.e. from sneezes and coughs over desks and office furniture), can remain active for up to three hours.
Naturally, after an employee has been sent home due to displaying symptoms of flu, their immediate environment should be sanitized. However, without knowing the employee's exact movements since their arrival, flu particles may still remain in the air or in droplet form on office furniture - presenting a risk that work colleagues might still become infected. This is of particular concern when employees with a high-risk of complications are in danger of contracting the flu.
Alerting Employees to Outbreaks of Flu in the Workplace
Whereas email may be an appropriate channel of communication for distributing information about flu vaccinations and flu-related HR policies, it is not ideal for alerting employees to short-term dangers. The threat from flu droplets may have completely receded before an employee reads their emails, by which time it may be too late for the employee to avoid exposure to the infection. Consequently a better solution than email is required for alerting employees to outbreaks of flu in the workplace.
One such solution is a mass notification platform that can alert thousands of employees simultaneously to the risk of danger using multiple channels of communication (SMS text, social media, voice broadcast, etc.). It is an ideal solution for alerting employees to outbreaks of flu in the workplace quickly, as it only takes a few clicks of a mouse to advise employees to keep clear of a potentially infected area, and then inform them when it should be safe to enter the area again.
Using a mass notification system in this manner is also a good way of publicizing that a “send home” policy is being enforced. It will help further discourage employees from turning up from work when they feel unwell - not just when they are suffering from flu, but from all illnesses - thus reducing presenteeism and the costs associated with it.
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