Flu season fast approaching

Workplace clinics, communication, flex work can help contain impact
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/26/2011

At the end of August 2011, there were only four diagnosed cases of influenza in Canada, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. But in the coming months, that number will climb considerably as flu season gets into full swing.

That will mean more than a few headaches for employers, with 10 per cent to 40 per cent of the workforce affected, said Sue Kelly, director of health and wellness at We Care Home Health Services in Toronto.

“It depends on the industry, on the age group and how closely knit the work stations are but, on average, I would definitely say 20 to 25 per cent of any given workforce will come down with a flu or respiratory-like illness this winter.”

An adult with the flu will normally be down and out for at least five days, said Kelly, who is also a registered and public health nurse.

“We’re talking about immense fatigue, like critical down-and-out fatigue, you can’t even move, achy joints, just overall unwellness… fever, cough, headaches, muscle aches.”

There can also be a lingering cough that can drag on for up to six weeks, said Kelly, which can mean reduced productivity at work. Plus, there’s the issue of family members succumbing to the infection, which can lead to reduced sleep for workers.

“Also, if any employees are living with another chronic health problem, like diabetes… hypertension, people who are more vulnerable, people who have cancer or are living with a mental health illness, all are more vulnerable to the flu,” she said.

And when an employee is not well, his workday might be disrupted with phone calls to the doctor or clinic visits — and most likely he will infect co-workers.

“It almost becomes a domino effect, where productivity is being impacted by multiple people because one person has chosen to attend work while not feeling well,” said Janet Young,director of business development, health and wellness, at Sun Life in Whitby, Ont.

Flu-fighting initiatives

As a result, employers should be taking steps now to try and make a potentially bad situation a bit better. That means investing in initiatives such as on-site flu clinics, employee communications and flexible work options.

Employees who get the flu shot could see their odds of contracting the flu reduced by 75 per cent, so it makes sense for employers to provide the vaccine, said Susan Novo, manager of health and disability at Cowan Group in Montreal.

Employees encouraged to go off-site for a flu shot must take time away from work whereas an on-site clinic takes 15 minutes for a worker to sign a waiver and receive the shot, said Novo. The costs for an on-site clinic vary depending on the provider and the province, but some charge a flat fee, such as $600 with one nurse or $1,000 with two nurses, she said.

The return on investment (ROI) can be seen in reduced sick time, increased productivity and reduced short-term disability claims if an employer pays a one-time fee of $1,000, because one claim can cost several hundred dollars or several thousand dollars, depending on complications, said Novo.

“The older the workforce, the higher the severity can be of the complications.”

More employers are seeing the value of a workplace clinic, not just because it helps the bottom line but because employees perceive the gesture positively and that helps in recruitment efforts, said Young.

“(New employees) expect to see these types of programs being implemented,” she said.

The cost varies widely depending on a number of factors, such as the number of employees being vaccinated, the number of locations and the province, said Young, and the cost ranges from $9 to $15 per person.

“The bottom line is the benefits far outweigh the costs.”

Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba are involved with the universal influenza immunization program so the serum is free, said Kelly. However, there are still costs to administer the vaccine, which averages $12 to $13 per shot, she said, while in other provinces, the cost can range from $20 to $25 per person.

Through an on-site clinic, at least 12 people can be vaccinated per hour, said Kelly, and while no vaccination is 100 per cent effective, if an employer saves one person from getting the flu, it’s covered its expense.

Muting the misinformation

Despite the obvious gains, many employees are still reluctant to take advantage of the on-site clinics. There are a lot of myths and misinformation out there, said Kelly. For example, some workers fear they’ll contract the flu by getting the shot. But the flu virus is a dead virus — it’s inactivated, so if someone who has the shot becomes sick with a flu-like illness, it’s just a coincidence, she said.

“Many people worry it’s not safe but I’ve got to say that vaccines are among the safest tools that modern medicine has and Canada has very stringent requirements that each flu manufacturer must meet at several stages along the process before it is released to doctors’ offices and through public health,” she said.

There’s also a newer option that might appeal to the needle-wary — an intra-nasal spray that costs about $35 per dose, said Kelly.

“For those that have a fear (or) aversion to needles, what a great way to get it,” she said. “It’s actually more effective because it is sprayed to the mucus membranes where the virus is harboured, where it lives, so it’s immediately working.”

To encourage employee participation and awareness, employers should focus on the messaging around wellness initiatives, said Young. That means talking about influenza and the impact it can have on a person, not just at work but at home.

“Really, from an employer perspective, that’s all they can do,” she said. “Focus on letting them know (you) want them to be healthier and more productive in their life, not just at work.”

However, employers should take some care with the communications around flu shots, said Novo.

“People need to be really clear with their communication that it’s just an option to help you do this more conveniently, it’s not an employer-forced thing,” she said. “That’s really important to prevent any kind of negative perception.”

As part of a supportive culture, employers should also tell workers to stay away from work if needed, said Young.

“That is a big message employers should convey is creating a bit of a supportive culture around, ‘If you’re sick, stay at home’ or ‘If you’re not feeling well, work from home.’ Those types of strategies are helping.”

On the same note, employers should suspend any requirements for doctors’ notes, said Kelly.

“By the time you’ve got an appointment to get in, you’ve already been spreading it. You’ve got to trust your employees.”

Employers can tell employees how to try and prevent the spread of the flu virus through newsletters, emails, the company intranet and wall posters, along with the installation of hand sanitizers.

More organizations are seeing the benefits of this kind of initiative, said Novo.

“The last pandemic scare we had has really, really smartened everybody up — everybody’s really taking notice.”

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