CoAdvantage- What can employers expect from flu season this year?
If we were to judge by the past couple of years, it might well be mild. The 2020-2021 flu season saw “unusually low” activity, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, with only around 600 deaths attributable to the flu. That’s an incredible 97% drop over past years, likely due to widespread work-from-home protocols and greater use of safety precautions like masking. 2021-2022 was a little more on track with a normal flu season, but even its estimated 5,000 to 14,000 deaths attributable to the flu is low compared to past seasons.
Unfortunately, at least one indicator raises the prospect that this year’s flu could be worse than normal, however.
Since the southern hemisphere’s seasons are the inverse of ours – while we’re in the middle of summer, they’re in the middle of winter – their flu season precedes ours. Thus, places like Australia provide a clue for what to expect. Unfortunately, the news here isn’t good; Australia has been having its worst flu season in five years.
Either way, what can employers do to protect their workers against the flu, Covid-19, and other common ailments?
1: Encourage employees to get their vaccines
Flu vaccine effectiveness varies from season to season because experts essentially have to make an educated guess about which flu variants will be circulating, but in general, flu vaccines can offer significant protection. One study found that, over the course of five flu seasons, the flu vaccine reduced the risk of hospitalization by half (51%) for adults ages 18-64 and by 37% for adults older than 65.
For Covid-19, this year also sees new “bivalent” vaccines designed to protect against both the original variants and the newer Omicron-related variants, potentially offering better protection against the rapidly evolving Covid-19. Though Covid-19 appears to be less seasonal than the flu, with surges capable of appearing at any time, risks will increase as more people congregate indoors during cold weather. Thankfully, Covid-19 vaccines appear to be quite effective, offering up to 88% protection against severe disease.
Many pharmacies are offering simultaneous flu and Covid shots.
2: Don’t make employees work sick, either explicitly or implicitly
Sick employers showing up dramatically increases the risk of workplace spread. Would you rather lose the productivity of one employee, or of half your workforce? However, it’s not enough to just have a stated policy that sick employees should not come into work. If your workplace practices make that infeasible, many sick employees will come in anyways.
Consider offering paid sick leave if you don’t already. Similarly, make sure any attendance-based performance or productivity measures do not penalize absences due to illness. Employers might also extend remote working policies, where feasible so that someone who has caught the flu or Covid-19 but still feels up to working can do so without the risk of transmitting the virus to others in the office.
3: Implement workplace wellness and hygiene guidelines
Basic hygiene can help a lot. Encourage employees to wash their hands frequently and to cover any coughs or sneezes. Consider making appropriate supplies available for employees to use, like tissues, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes.
Most mask mandates have also been wound down over the past year, but in some situations – very crowded indoor conditions – masks can still help. One study of 44 countries found that those with masking policies saw only about a sixth of the Covid-19 mortality as countries without face mask mandates (48.4 versus 288.54 deaths per million, respectively). Even better, masks can help with more than just the flu or Covid-19. “Masking helps reduce the spread of a lot of respiratory viruses, not just flu,” Emily Martin, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, told The New York Times. She says autumn can see 20 or more viruses circulating because of back-to-school spread.
Taken together, these three steps can help enormously to limit the potential spread of the flu, Covid-19, and other common ailments in the workplace.
CoAdvantage, one of the nation’s largest Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs), helps small to mid-sized companies with HR administration, benefits, payroll, and compliance. To learn more about our ability to create a strategic HR function in your business that drives business growth potential, contact us today.