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Flu Season Is Here. What Should Employers Do?

Nobody likes the flu. At best, it’s a miserable experience. At worst, it can be deadly.

And the flu is expensive. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flu costs the United States more than $87 billion annually.

The flu is a major cost for business. A Walgreens report found that U.S. adults missed 230 million days of work due to flu-related illness during the severe 2012-13 flu season. Plus, of course, there are productivity losses from employees who still report to work but are ineffective due to being flu-ridden.

Since seasonal flu activity can begin as early as October, it’s time for employers to protect themselves from the flu.
According to the CDC, the most valuable step employers can take is to maximize employee vaccination.

“Flu is unpredictable but make no mistake — anyone can get sick from the flu, including employees who are otherwise healthy,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Influenza also negatively impacts business continuity. Businesses that want to stay productive throughout flu season should encourage and support vaccination of their employees — vaccination is the single most effective way to protect against flu.”

What are employers’ options for supporting vaccination?

While in many states it is legal to require flu shots as a condition of employment, this can result in employee pushback and there are potential legal complications, so the CDC recommends the following ways to encourage the employees to get vaccinated:

  1. On-site flu clinics. Offering on-site vaccination at no or low cost to employees is an effective way to maximize participation. This is ideal for employers with on-site occupational health clinics, while those without clinics can contract with pharmacies and community vaccinators to provide vaccination services on-site.
  2. Promote vaccination. Communicate to employees why vaccination is important, and tell them where they and their families can get flu vaccines in their communities.
For helpful details and resources on these two options, see “Make it Your Business To Fight the Flu,” the CDC’s toolkit for businesses and employers.

Employers may also consider taking additional steps beyond supporting vaccination. Here are a few actions advocated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA):

  1. Encourage sick workers to stay home
  2. Promote hand hygiene and cough etiquette
  3. Keep the workplace clean
  4. Address travel concerns (e.g., reconsider business travel to areas with high illness rates)
Employers who make preventing the flu a priority will help make the flu less costly for their business. Plus, their employees will thank them for doing so.