The Flu Goes to Work
Concern for coworkers
Sometimes—let’s be realistic here—you just can’t be absent. Driven by pressure or by passion, many people will opt to go to work even with telltale flu signs like fever, aches and congestion. But these stalwarts do a double disservice: They worsen their own condition by robbing the body of needed rest, and they risk exposing coworkers to infection.
Frequently quoted statistics claim an average 200,000 people are hospitalized and 36,000 die from flu-related complications every season. What’s important to understand about these frightening numbers is that the majority are in high-risk groups who suffer complications (thus flu-“related”) from the virus. For instance, a large percentage is made up of older people who die when their flu develops into pneumonia. Anyone who goes to work sick needs to consider who, exactly, he or she might be exposing to germs. (See a list of high-risk groups here.)
Some industries are by definition populated with people at high risk. Be overly cautious if you work in health care, in a nursing home, in a school or in food preparation.
Many businesses have responsible plans for keeping workers healthy. Strategies include maintaining a healthy work environment (adequate ventilation, alcohol-based hand sanitizers), work-at-home policies with equipment for telecommuting, and cross-training to cover the duties of absent employees. More than half the nation’s employers offer a workplace flu-shot program as well.
By protecting employees, employers protect the bottom line. Outside of chronic conditions, influenza is the No. 1 cause of work loss in the U.S. Work absences from flu tend to hit in clusters, some years emptying office seats and factory stations at alarming rates. In a bad flu season, 15 percent of the workforce may become sick, with average absences of two to three days per worker, plus another day or two at less-than-normal productivity. Whether battling lingering symptoms or in a medicated fog, employees on the mend simply can’t operate to their potential. Working below capacity is known as presenteeism (“If you’re not here, raise your hand”), and represents another significant liability to employers.
Flu vaccines help stem the tide of costs associated with health care, absenteeism and presenteeism. In a study published last year by David Cutler, a Harvard health economist, showed that vaccinating healthy workers resulted in 43 percent fewer sick days and 44 percent fewer outpatient visits. Pulling out for a wider view, Cutler estimated that the nation’s total economic burden of flu in 2004 would total over $20 billion.
Finally, a few ideas you can use and share in the workplace to help stop the spread of flu germs:
* If you know you’re sick with the flu, stay home.
* Get a flu shot, which not only protects you but helps prevent contagion.
* Within a day of becoming ill, ask your doctor about antiviral medications, which can shorten the episode and contain the virus.
* Be especially cautious between late December and early March, the peak of flu season.
* Sneeze or cough into your elbow, not into your hands.
* Clean phones, doorknobs and desktops with alcohol swabs.
* Throw used tissues away!
* Wash your hands and face often with hot, soapy water.
* During flu season, never let anyone lick your keyboard.