With three months remaining in what is already being called the worst flu season in a decade, employers around the country are likely feeling the financial impact of increased healthcare costs and widespread absenteeism.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that, on average, seasonal flu outbreaks cost the nation's employers $10.4 billion in direct costs of hospitalizations and outpatient visits. That does not include the indirect costs related to lost productivity and absenteeism.

This year, the cost to businesses may be significantly higher in light of the increased number of cases. So far, 29 of 41 states reporting flu cases say the outbreak is at "severe" levels.

Unfortunately, we're now entering what is typically the peak time for catching the flu, says outplacement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas. January and February are considered the heaviest period of the flu season that stretches from October into March. So, companies that may already be shorthanded coming out of the economic downturn could find themselves struggling to keep up with demand in the weeks ahead as absenteeism claims more "manpower."

Challenger offered employers best practices for preventing the spread of flu:

  • Increase the number of shifts, which will reduce the number of employees working at one time.
  • Limit meetings. If there is no need to gather large groups of workers in a confined space then do not do it. Conduct meetings via conference calls. Bigger companies may want to consider video conferencing.
  • Expand telecommuting. Determine who can work from home or other locations. This will keep people off of public transportation and out of the workplace.
  • Have a flexible leave policy for employees if you are not required to provide sick leave under the state's mandated paid sick leave law.
  • Provide no-touch trash cans and hand sanitizers.
  • Encourage employees to wash their hands frequently, avoid handshaking, and take other hygienic precautions such as wearing a mask in heavily populated work areas.
  • Host a flu vaccination clinic in the workplace.
  • Promote flu vaccination in the community.
  • Prepare for the worst in order to ensure continuity in the wake of an outbreak. Consider not just the possibility of your own workforce being depleted by absenteeism, but also the likelihood of suppliers being hobbled.
  • Assign someone to the post of workplace illness coordinator, responsible for monitoring absenteeism rates, coordinating leave and informing employees of company measures to prevent and/or respond to outbreak.

    More information