While it is difficult for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to predict flu severity, absences due to illness could cost employers over $17 billion in lost productivity this season, according to the 2019 Flu Report from outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

To limit this cost, experts urge workplaces nationwide to prepare for the possibility of flu-related absences and take precautions to stymie infections.

"As last year's highly severe flu affected people across the country, the nation's employers would be wise to start discussing prevention measures with their workforces," said Challenger, Gray, & Christmas Vice President Andrew Challenger in a statement.

"Encourage workers to wash their hands often, stock soap at all shared sinks, remind workers to get their flu shots, and tell sick workers to stay home,"

Predictions for this Season

Last year's flu season sickened nearly 49 million people, 32.5 million of whom were over the age of 25, according to the CDC's age breakdown of flu infections for the 2017–18 season.

Last season was the worst since 2009, when that year's H1N1 strain sickened an estimated 60.8 million people, with more than 40 million of those affected over the age of 18.

Challenger predicts 20 million workers could take four eight-hour days away from work due to the flu this season.

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.

"This is lower than the $21 billion in lost productivity [we] predicted last season, as we have yet to experience the number of illnesses seen in the 2017-18 season," said Challenger.

The impact of losing workers during the flu season is considerable, especially for smaller and midsize firms.
"Even if this season is less severe, which is difficult to say at this point, the impact of losing workers during the flu season is considerable, especially for smaller and midsize firms that may not have the resources to cover absences without disrupting services to clients and customers."

The CDC recently implemented surveillance programs to monitor cases of flu due to the severity of the 2017-18 season.

In addition to the 49 million people sickened, 960,000 were hospitalized, and 79,000 deaths were due to flu symptoms.

As of the end of December 2018, Influenza-like illness is at 4.1%, up from the national baseline at 2.2 percent. For comparison, last year's numbers reached near-pandemic levels at 7.7%.

Tips for Employers

In addition to recommending that workers get their flu shots, employers should consider expanding telecommuting and remote work opportunities if they begin to see the virus spread.

"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," said Challenger.

"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 offered some other tips employers might consider to help prevent the spread of illness, as the current flu season is now in full swing:

  • Encourage getting a vaccine early and provide the information on where to get one nearby. It is never too late to protect yourself, but the earlier you receive the shot, the better.
  • Increase the number of shifts. This will reduce the number of people at a workplace at any 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 or video conferencing.
  • Expand telecommuting. Determine who can work from home or another location. This will keep people off public transportation and out of the office.
  • Allow sick workers to stay home without fear of losing their jobs.
  • Institute flexible leave policies to allow parents to care for a sick child or one who is home due to school closures.
  • Provide critical supplies, including no-touch trash cans, hand-washing stations, soap, and hand sanitizer.
  • Encourage employees to wash their hands frequently, avoid handshakes, and take other hygienic precautions, such as disinfecting workplace surfaces—for example, phones and computers.

    Register today for CBIA's 2019 Human Resources Conference, March 21 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. at the Red Lion Hotel in Cromwell. 

Filed Under: Health & Wellness
  • iiRAN

    Everyone I’ve known to get the flu shot comes down with the flu. No Thanks.