- This year's flu season is expected to cost employers over $17 billion in lost productivity this year, according to the latest estimate from Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.
- The global outplacement and executive coaching firm predicted that 20 million workers could take four eight-hour days off from work to recover from the illness. Using the current employment-population ratio of 60.6% and the average hourly wage of $27.48, the cost to employers could hit $17,587,200,000 over the course of the season.
- Employees should be encouraged to get flu shots, to stay at home when they are sick and to wash their hands often, Challenger Vice President Andrew Challenger said.
The 2017-18 flu season featured high levels of outpatient clinic and ER visits and was the first flu season to be classified as having "high severity" across all age groups, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This season, as of the end of December 2018, flu-like illness is at 4.1%, up from the national baseline of 2.2%. Last year's numbers reached 7.7% — near-pandemic levels, Challenger said.
Workplaces are ripe for the spread of contagious diseases like the flu, especially with the long-term trend of open floor plans in the workspace, shared devices and workers who fear negative repercussions if they miss work, research has shown. It doesn't help that employees choose to come to work even when they're sick; 40% of respondents to an October 2018 Walgreens survey admitted coming to work with the flu. "While workers may think they are doing the right thing and helping their teams by coming into work when they are sick, they are only likely to spread their illness, potentially further disrupting normal operations," Challenger said.
Employers can encourage employees and their families to get vaccinated each year and can offer vaccinations at work. But mandatory vaccinations for workers can be risky for most employers. Nathaniel Glasser, an attorney in the Washington, D.C. office of Epstein Becker & Green, P.C., previously told HR Dive that if employers start requiring vaccinations, they have to be prepared to address requests for accommodations from employees and that there have been a number of enforcement actions by both the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice in the last few years along those lines.
Employers can also consider expanding telecommuting and remote work opportunities if they begin to see the virus spreading rapidly throughout the workplace. "In the ongoing war for talent, many employers have already expanded work-from-home opportunities to attract and retain workers. This is a good use of those opportunities, as it will help keep any infection from spreading," Challenger said.
Challenger also suggested that to head off the spread of the flu, employers can conduct meetings via conference calls or video conferencing to eliminate the gathering of employees in a confined space; institute flexible leave policies to allow parents to care for a sick child or one who is home due to school closures; and provide no-touch trash cans, hand-washing stations, soap and hand sanitizer.