10 tips for cold, flu (and other illnesses) season

We’ve heard the familiar ring of “Get your flu shot!” throughout our communities. This year, the urgency seems to be magnified with news of both influenza A and B strains circulating at the same time. Widespread illness and deaths are breaking records. Unfortunately, this year’s flu shot is rarely effective against the H3N2 virus. Concerns continue over the preparedness of our emergency care providers and facilities to handle serious illness.

2 little girls in the doctor's exam roomThe situation underscores the need to ensure that employees are healthy, cared for and supported throughout the year. It’s what is best for them, and that makes it what is best for any business or organization concerned about productivity. It’s estimated that serious illnesses could impact U.S. employers by up to $250+ billion each year.

People of all ages and conditions are susceptible to a wide variety of illnesses. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) warns that virus germs are spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes or touches a contaminated surface. It’s highly contagious in schools, daycares, stores, libraries, restaurants and play areas that cater to young families. On the other end of the spectrum are the elderly, who are particularly susceptible to influenza, closely linked to bronchitis and pneumonia. The vast majority of deaths due to influenza each year are among those 65 and older.

If your organization works frequently with the public, such as in a store, restaurant, educational setting or care facility, your employees are at extremely high risk. And while much of good health has to do with the behavior and personal habits of each individual, here are 10 tips to help keep your workforce as healthy as possible.

  1. Keep workers informed. This helps them understand the potential risks for your organization. The CDC frequently releases information on the numbers of influenza cases nationwide, and just having some awareness of the challenge from a credible source (and the media is not always the most credible source) can raise everyone’s sensitivities and help them change any risky behaviors.
  2. Make employees aware of the availability of flu vaccines, and provide time off to get them if necessary.
  3. Cleanliness is next to healthiness. Stress hand washing, wipe surfaces down with a germ-killing solution, have hand wipes and disinfectant available throughout your facility and post hand-washing reminders in every restroom.
  4. Tell them to stay home! Really. If someone is feeling ill and showing symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, runny nose or aches, tell that worker to stay home. Having someone out for one or two days beats having several workers out longer. Especially if work can be done from home, it’s best to err on the side of caution and encourage employees to keep their germs out of the workplace.
  5. If your employees interact frequently with the public, have them wear rubber gloves. Employees who travel should be particularly vigilant since they will be in many public spaces typically highly contaminated by thousands of people from all over the world each day. Limit travel to the extent you can, and especially limit it to areas of the world or country in which there is an abundance of illness. Be sure you have the necessary documentation and processes in place for your traveling employees in the event one of them becomes too ill to travel while away and has to seek medical or hospital treatment. Be sure you have a list of each employee’s contact information and ways to contact the employee’s family if necessary.
  6. Ensure that every employee is trained in at least one other job besides her own. When workers must be gone due to illness, time invested in cross-training will pay big benefits. If you have multiple locations, have employees visit all of the facilities in which they might be called upon to work to become familiar with the environment and the people.
  7. Be sure you have good communication processes in place to keep everyone informed if your company ends up facing an emergency situation as a result of multiple absences or an epidemic of some kind. If you need to close due to lack of staff or concern about contagion, have a media plan in place to inform the public and save frustration on the part of customers and employees.
  8. Develop a contact within a temporary staffing agency, and provide them with job descriptions and lists of duties you might need someone to perform in the absence of critical employees. Then, when an emergency arises, you are not scrambling to communicate all of that information in the midst of covering several other jobs.
  9. Develop a plan to cover the functions routinely completed by anyone with school-aged children, or have a system in place that will enable those employees to telecommute. In the event a school or other organization in your area should have to close as a result of illness, it may affect your employees who might have to stay home with their children.
  10. Finally, ensure your insurance house is in order in the event of multiple claims, and encourage employees to authorize direct deposit so they can continue to receive their paychecks even if they are too ill to come to the workplace.

We may not always be able to maintain perfect health, but we can always be smart and proactive.