Originally Published on December 15, 2020 in Risk Management

By Mohannad Kusti

As businesses in various industries navigate a safe return to work for employees, a familiar occupational health hazard—flu season—may create new challenges for risk management teams in the coming months. This year, seasonal influenza represents another threat to productivity and a potential for increased healthcare costs for many employers already facing unprecedented challenges. The National Council on Compensation Insurance estimated that COVID-19 will cost up to $81 billion in increased compensation costs in the United States. Employers, particularly those who are self-insured, can also expect an increase in medical costs estimated to be up to 7%. For employers, minimizing flu season’s impact will come down to encouraging employees to take the necessary steps to protect themselves, their families and their colleagues, and minimize the risk of spreading infection.

Sharing Knowledge and Building Buy-in

From a risk management perspective, there is significant overlap between flu season best practices and COVID-19 precautions. At the same time, separating fact from fiction for either one of these is difficult when so much information, often conflicting, is circulating. Providing useful, evidenced-based information to your workforce about COVID-19 and the flu, as well as steps to prevent them from spreading, can boost buy-in and increase credibility around the protocols to which employees are being asked to adhere. Employers should also consider using technology like mobile applications and text messages to disseminate information in ways that reach employees where they are most accessible and likely to read the information.

Now more than ever, there is a clear business case to be made for maintaining a healthy workforce. This is prompting many employers to reevaluate health and wellness offerings and double down on precautions that can help keep employees safe and slow the spread of both the flu and COVID-19.

Minimizing Seasonal Flu Risk

According to Harvard Medical School, the flu shot is more important than ever this year. While the ideal time to get a flu shot is in early fall before the season starts, it is still better to get the vaccination late than foregoing it altogether. Minimizing cases of the flu is critical to keeping hospital beds open for COVID-19 patients, and researchers have found that the flu can make COVID-19 worse. Yet there is still a percentage of the population reluctant to get a flu shot each year due to a fundamental misunderstanding of how vaccines work or other fears. Some employees and their families may skip the flu shot this year because they are avoiding health care facilities out of concerns over COVID-19 transmission. Others may simply not make it a priority in their time off, and still others may think that it is simply too late in the season to be effective.

Employers have an opportunity to address all of these issues and increase seasonal flu vaccines among workers. Providing clear, credible information about the importance of the flu shot can help increase participation. Further, offering flu shots on-site or giving employees a way to get the shot during work hours can also increase the number of employees who get it.

Staying Home if Sick

The established precautions for COVID-19 will also be critical to slowing the spread of the flu. It is important to encourage your workforce to stay home if they are not feeling well or exhibiting symptoms. In the case of COVID-19, if they believe they may have been exposed to someone who has contracted the virus, they should avoid the workplace until they are able to get a test and receive the results. For workers with the flu, the Centers for Disease Control recommends staying home until at least 24 hours after their fever is gone without the use of fever-reducing medications, or after symptoms have improved (at least 4 to 5 days after flu symptoms started). The recommendation to stay home if you are sick is a proven best practice and is often repeated during flu season. But too often, company cultures do not reinforce this principle. It comes down to communication and culture—making sure a culture of health and personal accountability takes precedence over production deadlines or scheduling concerns. Avoiding work when unwell—whether coronavirus or flu symptoms or other illnesses—is a major line of defense to stop the spread of illness in the workplace.

Wearing a Mask

Just as businesses enforce wearing safety goggles, hard hats or other protective gear to prevent on-the-job injuries, mask wearing should be enforced to protect your workforce from spreading COVID-19, and can also help slow the spread of the flu. According to the CDC, wearing a mask, especially indoors or where physical distancing is a greater challenge, is one of the best tools to combat the virus. Employers should cite this guidance to establish a clear, straightforward policy requiring masks on-site. Employers should also strongly encourage their employees to comply with this best practice outside of the workplace in public settings. Companies can help enforce this line of protection by providing their workforce with high-quality surgical masks.

Washing Your Hands

Handwashing and personal hygiene are a long-standing, proven defense against contracting viruses. While this may seem like a common-sense safeguard, it is one of the most important steps employees can take. Employers can communicate the importance of this by posting reminders around the facility, installing more hand sanitizing stations and incorporating regular breaks throughout the day to facilitate handwashing.

Practicing Physical Distancing

While maintaining the recommended safe physical distance of six feet may be more difficult in some settings, depending on the nature of the particular industry, companies can take steps like amending shift schedules to reduce the number of on-site employees present. However, businesses should also consider the mental and emotional toll the pandemic has taken on employees, and should take care not to add anxiety over flu season to already stressed out workers. Encouraging social interactions at a safe distance is just as critical to help combat the toll the virus has taken on the health and wellbeing of their workforce. To support this message, some employers have taken to calling this practice “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing.”

Screening for Symptoms

Headache, body ache, fatigue, loss of smell, fever and diarrhea are among the most common symptoms of COVID-19 and can be tracked with screening. Implementing a no-contact symptom check and temperature screening daily for employees entering a facility helps eliminate the likelihood of anyone with mild symptoms entering the workplace. This also serves as a useful way for employees to be aware of potential symptoms. For employers still using these screenings, monitoring for additional flu symptoms such as muscle aches, cough and congestion is a good idea.

Effective Safety Protocols Start with Effective Communication

Reinforcing the importance of masks, hand-washing, distancing, screenings and staying home with easily understood facts about the effectiveness of these steps empowers your workforce to protect themselves, their coworkers and their family and friends outside of the workplace.

These basic steps go a long way, but like any change, they can result in disruption. Having an occupational medical practice at your facility can help streamline the wellness program’s implementation and increase its effectiveness. Moreover, a dedicated health and wellness team in the workplace can reduce the burden on HR or other professionals charged with facilitating employee health and wellness. Even during “normal” times, an on-site wellness program supports reducing costs and encouraging employee health by instituting programs that better address smoking cessation, hypertension and weight management—all conditions that increase the likelihood of serious illness, accidents or death.

COVID-19 has been an incredible challenge in workplaces across the country, but we have seen workplaces step up and come together to address this head-on. There is little doubt they will tackle flu season with the same effective practices. Just like having a savvy CEO and CFO to maintain a healthy bottom-line, having an occupational health expert at the management table is an added layer of security to help protect your most important and irreplaceable assets, your human capital.