With autumn beginning recently, so also begins the flu season. Although last year’s flu season was on the quiet side getting off to a very late start with the warmer than normal autumn and winter temperatures, influenza typically begins to show up in late October, peaks in January and begins to subside by February.
Although a great many people might consider the flu to not be a big deal, historically speaking we’ve had five serious world-wide flu pandemics in the last 100 years that should give us some thought about what may occur in the not too distant future.
First, going back to 1918, the Spanish flu killed somewhere between 20 and 50 million people. Then it wasn’t until 1957 that another pandemic occurred with the Asian flu. Fortunately by this time, medical personnel were more educated and proactive in reducing the outbreak’s world-wide deaths to two million. Eleven years later, the more mild Hong Kong flu of 1968 killed an estimated one million people. Then in 1976, we had the first swine flu outbreak that turned out to be more of a mass panic via scaremongering than actual deaths from the outbreak. However, in 2009 came the 2009 H1N1 virus (aka, swine flu) which was
especially lethal because it was a new combination of man, swine and avian elements and humans didn’t have any natural immunity to it and we lagged behind in getting a vaccine for it. By the time the pandemic had subsided in late spring 2010, it is estimated that between 300,000 to 600,000 people died from it.
Given the global nature of business and travel, there is an excellent chance for a new pandemic virus to spread very quickly throughout the world even faster than what we’ve seen in the past 100 years. Although you may think that the chances of a pandemic flu like in the 2011 medical thriller film, “Contagion” are more fiction than fact, the creators behind that movie went to great lengths to fact-check their story of a viral pandemic that goes on to kill tens of millions of people, retaining a panel of famous virologists and epidemiologist as consultants.
The H1NI flu outbreak in 2009 created some common problems in the workplace that bear some discussion. First, what happens in the workplace if employees complain that a co-worker is sick and coughing and infecting the office? From this came the need to create a policy to allow anyone to report a concern, that the concern remain confidential, unlike harassment claims, and management use the power of persuasion to get the sick employee home and out of the business of spreading germs at the office.
Another important problem was that of attendance. Instead of telling people to just stay home and/or work from home without any time and attendance requirements, employers
have found they need to have good time and attendance policies that are clear and make practical sense. One problem arose from employers’ generous impulse to let employees, especially hourly employees, take liberal leave, coupled with working from home. The problem with this is dealing with Fair Labor Standards Act wage and hour laws. If an hourly employee works for three days, for example, and you send him/her home and he/she uses two days of sick leave on his/her time card, that’s simple and okay. However, what if that employee might actually work six or eight hours of work-from-home and then not put it on their
time card. At some point in the future, you could have a potentially expensive wage and hour dispute.
Although employers have learned some important lessons from the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak, continued education is needed today to make sure that everyone in the workplace is being vigilant about hand washing, sneezing into sleeves rather than blowing germs out into the air, using hand sanitizers, and especially staying home when they are sick. Today as opposed to even a few decades ago, we have excellent tools such as the internet to carry on effective work via telework.
As we move further into flu season, here are some good ideas for employers to consider implementing in the workplace.
- Buy hand sanitizers. Place hand sanitizers in several locations and make sure employees understand the value of using it.
- Safe Practice Signs. Place safe practice signs up in the bathrooms and bulletin boards.
- Written policy on dealing with a pandemic. Have written flu pandemic policy spelled out your employee handbook and on the company website
- Convince sick people to stay home. Sick employees may think they’re being dedicated workers when they still come into work but, the truth is, they spread germs to other employees and cut down on the overall productivity of the business. Encourage employees to stay home when they are sick at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever or severe symptoms. Consider instituting a flexible leave policy — and appropriate technology — that allows employees to work from home if they or their kids are sick.
- Encourage flu shots. Getting a flu shot each year has been scientifically proven to be one of the best protections against influenza throughout the flu season. Flu shots are offered in a multitude of locations, including doctor offices, clinics, pharmacies, as well as by many employers.
- Educate employees about hand washing. In combination with a flu shot, washing your hands frequently is one of the best ways to avoid germs. Frequently means after you shake someone’s hand, after using public transportation, after handling money, etc.
- Hold a health fair. Contact your local hospital to see if they provide health fairs for larger offices. You can also contract the coordination of an on-site health fair with a company specializing in the service.
In addition, here’s some important information to share with employees in preparation for flu season:
- Avoid touching commonly used surfaces & handles. Avoid touching door knobs. handles, sink controls, levers or switches of any kind. Use your sleeve, tissue or anything that puts a barrier between a possibly contaminated surface and your hand.
- Wash hands continuously & use hand sanitizers. As stated above, other than getting a flu shot, washing your hands continuously throughout the day is probably the other most effective way to avoid getting sick. Also, make a conscious effort to keep your hands away from your face, particularly your mouth, eyes and nose. Keep your hands below the neck at all times, unless you’ve just washed them.
- Get enough rest. When your body is exhausted, your immune system isn’t working to fight off incoming diseases. Most people don’t get enough sleep during a normal night, so make sure you actually get at least eight hours of sleep. Yes, the typical person needs about eight hours of sleep a night.
- Ingest vitamins C & E. You have probably heard that taking lots of vitamin C, typically found in citrus fruit, is a great way to fight off colds. In addition, however, taking vitamin E, which is found in almonds, sunflower seeds, peanuts, etc. is another great way to fight off colds.
- Consider using probiotics. There’s more and more good news about probiotics. Probiotics, found in such things as yogurt, pickles and supplements, work toward improving digestion and can help prevent upper respiratory infections.
- Smoking & drinking alcohol. Smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol are good friends to catch a cold. They tend to have a negative effect on a person’s immune system and make your body more attractable to a cold. If you smoke and drink on
a regular basis and start to feel like you’re coming down with a cold, try to stop smoking and drinking for a few days.