Small Business Playbook: How to Reduce the Flu's Impact on Your Workplace

You need employees serving customers, not sneezing on them; makers making, not aching; and staffers shipping, not sniffling. But the flu bug has...

Employee management, Flu prevention, Small businesses

You need employees serving customers, not sneezing on them; makers making, not aching; and staffers shipping, not sniffling. But the flu bug has different plans for your team.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that the flu costs $7 billion per year in sick days and lost productivity. And workers report their productivity decreases by half when powering through the flu at work, according to a Staples® survey.

Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows the best method for preventing a flu-related slowdown in your office is getting your flu vaccination, and encouraging your team to do the same. Other activities further reduce the likelihood that you and your coworkers will be knocked out by the flu.

Tips for Employees

No matter what your role, you can pitch in to keep the flu on permanent vacation this season by:

  • Washing your hands. About 80 percent of all infectious diseases are spread by touch. "Handwashing is a good place to start with flu prevention because it's simple, cheap and can be effective," explains Amesh Adalja, MD, a board-certified infectious disease physician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Use soap and water, scrubbing both sides of your hands for 20 to 30 seconds (about as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" or "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"). When soap and water aren't available, use enough alcohol-based hand sanitizer to cover your hands thoroughly.
  • Wiping surfaces. Believe it or not, the average desktop has 400 times more bacteria on it than the average toilet seat does. Gross! Regularly wipe down keyboards, phones and other frequently touched surfaces. "It's as simple as using disinfecting or sanitizing wipes made for electronic equipment; alcohol wipes should work best," says Charles Gerba, PhD, professor of microbiology and environmental sciences at the University of Arizona. Do this at your own workstation, when using someone else's space, and in conference rooms and breakrooms.
  • Avoiding transmission. The "elbow cough" (using the crook of your arm instead of your hand) may look awkward, but it's a good way to avoid spreading germs when you don't have tissues to cough or sneeze into. Dispose of tissues in no-touch trash receptacles. Avoid touching your nose, mouth and eyes to keep the germs you come in contact with from making their way into your body.
  • Going and staying home. "If people are feeling sick, they should [go or] stay home to avoid spreading the virus and to give themselves time to rest and recover," asserts Randy Bergen, MD, an infectious disease specialist and clinical lead for Kaiser Permanente's flu vaccine program in Northern California. If you can't make it into work, alert your boss and then call your doctor. "We are most contagious right at the beginning of the flu's incubation period, so as a general rule, people should wait 24 hours after their fever is gone without the use of aspirin or other fever-reducing medicine to go out in public."

Tips for Small Business Owners

As a business owner, you know the power of leading by example, including getting your own flu shot and practicing workplace germ control. But you also need to make it easy for your team to make the flu unwelcome by:

  • Sharing information. Use staff meetings, bulletin boards and employee emails to educate about flu vaccinations, wellness tips, and proper cleaning and disinfecting techniques. Also communicate flu symptoms (fever, chills, headache and muscle/body aches) and contagiousness. Spread the message further with flyers or posters in high traffic areas.
  • Clean more. Be sure your cleaning and maintenance staff use disinfecting cleaners and attend to hot spots like door handles and elevator buttons. Remind employees to wipe down workstations, devices and conference/breakroom surfaces before and after use.
  • Provide products. Place alcohol-based hand sanitizers in common areas and hands-free soap dispensers in bathrooms and kitchens. Arm employees with disinfectant wipes for easy germ control. These low-cost items can be effective at stopping the spread of germs.
  • Be flexible. Make it easier for sick employees to go home and stay there until they are better. "I believe that many business owners do not recognize and promote the importance of staying home from work if employees believe they have contracted influenza," laments Will Mayo, RN, an occupational health nurse at Clemson University's Joseph F. Sullivan Center. Plan ahead for absences with a work-from-home policy, which may include providing tablets, laptops and other devices that make it easier for employees to be productive remotely. And when possible, give time off for employees who can only get flu vaccinations during shifts.