Flu Season Primer: Everything You Need to Know

I was interviewed by Associations Now about flu season and how to minimize its impact on your office. And the impact is huge; cost alone of the flu to American businesses is estimated by the CDC at $7 billion.  Remember the timeless adage: prevention is cheaper than the cure. 

I suggest offering free flu shots to your employees which helps to make getting the shot more convenient, but we are late in the season for that. Remember that very rarely can employers require immunization, and the flu shot only reduces the risk of influenza illness by 40% to 60% suggest recent studies by CDC researchers.  ” Compelled vaccinations outside the health-care industry are rare and any employer considering such a policy should take into account concerns that may be raised by employees, such as religious or medical reasons for refusing the vaccine,” says David Barron, labor and employment attorney, in the Inquirer.  The article also discusses the concerns related to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) during flu season.  For further information on the legal implications, SHRM recommends non-discriminatory formatting to the fitness-for-duty documentation of  employees returning to work. A vaccine finder application is available free online at

Contraction of influenza starts with exposure, and don’t forget many employees continue to come to work even though they are infected and contagious.  In fact, only 11% of employees report to always calling in sick when infectious, while 33% admit to always going to office when they are ill according to a study by Accountemps’ Robert Haft.  “Feelings of being irreplaceable, a high workload, not being able to afford to take time off, perceiving presenteeism as an organisational norm, or perceiving that you are not sick enough to justify time off work […] with acute infectious illnesses such as influenza can arguably present more problems to organisations due to the possibility of workplace epidemics,” found a study by BMC Public Health.  Presenteeism can be fought by having a good telecommuting plan that promotes continuity.

Soap and hand sanitizer should be readily available and well-stocked.  However, while the AP suggests, small offices should defend against virus contagions with hand sanitizer, the FDA also warned Purell to stop claiming that hand sanitizer can prevent the flu.  However, if using hand sanitizer gets employees thinking about better hygiene practices, then I think it is helpful.

Touching things that others have touched transfers the virus.  Stratus Building Solutions lists doorknobs, elevator buttons, microwaves, fridges, vending machines, water coolers, sink sponges, coffee stations, keyboards, phones, makeup cases, copier machines, shared pens, and shared staplers all as potential sources of viral transfer.  Encourage employees to wipe down their areas periodically and provide them with disinfecting wipes to do so.  

“Trends like open offices and collaborative workspaces designed to foster creativity and supportive work environments also lead to more germs spread more expediently.” says Quartz at Work citing a 62% increase in sick days in open-office workplaces compared to those with office layouts with dividers or walls. Vice suggests this may be peer-pressure presenteeism at work citing a “one study of more than 1,800 Swedish workers found that people in open plan offices were nearly twice as likely to take short term sick leave (of one week or less) than those who worked in private offices.”

You don’t need to be in the office to contract the flu from work.  For those of us who travel frequently for work, National Geographic recently published travel advice on where to sit on a plane to avoid contagions.   To add some separation between you and potential airborne germs some people turn to masks, but the Wall Street Journal points out that experts doubt it’s effectiveness: “The likelihood that any of these are going to protect anyone in these environments is minimal,” said Bruce Ribner, medical director of Emory University Hospital’s Serious Communicable Diseases Unit. “Wearing these things can in some ways be worse than not wearing one.”

From an HR perspective, we don’t supply masks in the workplace because of the lack of effectiveness.  Working with industrial hygienists, I learned that only professionally fitted and high quality masks are effective.  

So the best way to reduce exposure is to keep contagious people out of your office.  The CDC says 17 million days of work are missed each year due to influenza.  Jouni Jaakkola professor of public health at the University of Oulu’s Centre for Environmental and Respiratory Health Research, says “people should stay away from work at the first signs of the flu for the benefit of both their co-workers and employees.”  A runny nose, headache or sore throat, he believes, are symptoms enough to stay home from work. It is important to remember that symptoms needn’t be present for some viruses to be contagious as is the case with the coronavirus which makes the situation difficult.

The clearest symptom that says you should stay home?  A fever.  The CDC suggests businesses, “advise all employees to stay home if they are sick until at least 24 hours after their fever* (temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or 37.8 degrees Celsius or higher) is gone without the use of fever-reducing medicines. Individuals with suspected or confirmed flu, who do not have a fever, should stay home from work at least 4-5 days after the onset of symptoms.”

Hopefully, your office isn’t feeling the crunch of cold and flu season.  It’s important to remember that planning and prevention are key to avoiding as much impact as possible.  I hope that some of the advice in this post will be helpful to keeping you and your organization healthy during this flu season.