A strong economy can create many challenges for employers. With a tight labor market, recruiting and retaining talent becomes more difficult, requiring benefits to be more competitive (and expensive). Now, research suggests that high employment also equates to a significant increase in flu cases.

In a study published last year in Economics & Human Biology, Erik Nesson describes how the flu virus spreads more easily when workplaces are more crowded. For every single percentage point increase in the employment rate, there is a 16% increase in flu-related medical visits.

This data can have serious implications for the current flu season, which is expected to be particularly severe. Since 2011, the employment rate has risen steadily, and in November 2019 had reached 71.7% (nearly the same as its pre-recession peak). As more people find themselves interacting with others in a workplace setting, it makes sense that they would more likely come into contact with flu viruses.

As of the end of January 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported 120,000 hospitalizations and 6,600 deaths related to the flu. It is unclear whether or not the flu season has reached its peak, so encouraging and enabling employees to receive the flu vaccination can still have an impact on employee health. In addition to flu shots, employees can engage in certain behaviors to help strengthen their immune system. Check out the infographic at the end of this blog for scientifically-proven tips to protect yourself and others against the sniffles!

Flexible Sick Day Policies Contain Outbreaks

Considering the significant health impact workplace interactions can have, it's important the companies review their sick day policies during a particularly bad flu season (or, when it seems any illness is already making its way through the company). Keeping ill employees at home can be the key to containing an outbreak and maximizing the number of workers that avoid becoming ill.

In fact, this is something that is often done in public school systems around the country; when a large percentage of children take sick days for the flu or another illness, the district will close for a day (or more) so everyone can stay home, rest, and reduce exposure. This doesn’t mean a company should necessarily shut down like public schools, but employers should encourage employees to take needed sick days and provide them with the resources to do so.

If there aren’t enough available sick days offered, sick workers might risk exposing others in order to fulfill obligations and not be penalized financially. It’s important to be flexible and generous with sick days, and it can be beneficial to reexamine a policy mid-flu season if employee health requires it.

For jobs that are part-time or those that do not offer sick days, employees might be more willing to stay home for a work shift if they have the opportunity to make up that lost income later.

Wellness Benefits Lower Flu-Related Expenses

Offering flu shots is one obvious go-to benefit that is proven to lower flu-related illnesses. This can also be extended to a worker’s family. Less sick days taken or less time off to care for ill children or spouses results in more productivity.

It’s not the only way to combat the flu. Effective wellness benefits can help boost an employee’s overall health, keeping their immune system strong against illnesses year-round. While wellness programs are most often thought of as a way to increase an individual worker’s well-being and, therefore, their productivity, it’s important to consider that a single worker’s health can impact other employees and the general population as well.

Healthy habits like regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and eating a diet that includes nutrient-rich foods and avoids processed products directly leads to better overall health. Offering healthy food options, gym reimbursements, fitness classes, health education resources, and wellness challenges are all ways to encourage these positive habits in employees.

Additionally, giving employees the support to stop unhealthy habits (like quitting smoking through a tobacco cessation program) can also have a huge impact. It’s also thought that managing stress and supporting mental health may benefit the immune system.

While these concerns may be more popular in the colder months or the peak of flu season, it’s always a valuable time to invest in employee health to sustain productivity year-round.


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