Preventing the confluence of COVID and flu in the workplace
Flu in the workplace is always an issue for employers. It is estimated that flu costs developed economies around £30 billion annually, and is a regular driver of sickness absence each winter. The ONS classifies it as one of the minor illnesses that cause a quarter of all sickness absences.
Despite the mild weather this Autumn, it seems the flu season has started earlier than usual. While this year, as for the past two years, COVID-19 promises to complicate things further.
All employers should strive to be ready for this flu season and the next. The confluence of two seasonal viruses in COVID and flu is likely to recur for many years.
There are three questions to consider:
- What do employers need to know about the flu season?
- Why is COVID a complicating factor for flu in the workplace?
- What action can they take to prevent the spread of flu at work?
Let’s take a look.
A few flu facts for employers
- Flu (short for influenza) is a respiratory infection mainly affecting the nose, throat and lungs. It can bring symptoms such as a high temperature, aches and pains, sickness and diarrhoea – all symptoms easily confused with those of current COVID variants.
- Flu is highly infectious and spreads incredibly easily in the workplace. Virus within droplets from coughs and sneezes can live for 24 hours on surfaces such as doorknobs, handrails, keyboards, and desks.
- Flu is infectious before symptoms start to show, making it a major concern for workplace transmission. Staff can easily spread illness at work whilst feeling fully well.
- Flu is not just a winter illness. The flu season in the UK can last anywhere from 4-8 months, with outbreaks possible all the way through to May – and it can be caught any time of the year.
COVID complications in an economic crisis
The impacts of circulating flu and COVID in workplaces could be deep and damaging for employers. Waves of staff sickness absences could impact productivity and operational continuity at a time they can ill-afford the costs of any interruptions, extra risks or temporary staffing.
COVID has already changed the risk profile of flu. Not only because of the risk of dual infection, but because there is low natural herd immunity thanks to lockdown restrictions preventing flu circulation last winter.
If both COVID and flu run rampant this winter, the impact on employers could be severe.
It is perfectly possible to catch COVID and flu at the same time. Because they are different viruses, catching one provides absolutely no immunity to the other.
Fears of a ‘twindemic’ are perhaps being overblown by media. But the risks of people catching flu and COVID together are real.
A dual infection increases the risk of severe illness and hospitalisation.
Longer than usual sickness absences are inevitable for employees who are unlucky enough to get a co-infection – even for those who do not require hospital treatment.
Another consideration is that, like COVID, flu can cause post viral syndromes – in other words, ‘long flu’. Early studies have suggested symptoms could persist after 12 weeks, and include breathing difficulties, headaches, and fatigue.
We have previously written about what employers need to know about long COVID and provided useful resources. They may also need to take on board that flu also may cause far more than assumed impacts like a lingering cough, but require support from Occupational Health, and even potential work adjustments.
Mental health implications of a COVD and flu spike in workplaces
Productivity concerns and costs of absence from flu in workplaces are a real issue. But they are not the only issue. Should flu and COVID combine in a damaging way, there may also be mental health impacts.
First, high levels of absence always have a knock on effect on the remaining workforce, where people may have to carry on and cover for absent colleagues or cope with an ever-changing array of temporary staff who are less familiar with systems.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, are the concerns of employees.
Experiences in the pandemic have heightened many people’s worries about infection – especially those who live with conditions such as asthma or diabetes.
Couple this with the generally higher levels of stress and concern being felt during the cost of living crisis, plus growing worries about the NHS’s ability to cope at either GP or hospital level, and the risks are clear.
Anxiety and low morale can compound existing absence issues, as well as impact everyday operations in any business.
Flu vaccines cannot provide full protection to individuals or businesses
We have all become familiar with the idea of vaccination targeting to protect the most vulnerable, thanks to the COVID pandemic.
The flu vaccination is routinely offered only to those over 50, the pregnant, frontline health workers, and anyone with a serious long-term health condition.
Many working-age adults will fall outside these categories.
Vaccination effectiveness is also far from assured. Flu vaccines must be reviewed every year since flu viral strains evolve constantly. Neither previous infection nor earlier vaccination can provide immunity – and there is never a guarantee about this current year’s effectiveness.
Recommendations for flu vaccine composition are made in advance each year by the World Health Organization to allow time for vaccine production. They are guided by the most likely predicted variation.
In the years 2015 to 2020, flu vaccine effectiveness varied from 15% to 52%. The provisional end of season Vaccine Effectiveness assessment by the government suggests the 2021 flu vaccine was just 26% effective in adults aged 50 and above.
7 ways employers can prepare for flu and respiratory viruses at work
- ABOVE ALL, remember and apply key learnings from the COVID pandemic. Infection control should be a high priority. Remind staff about regular, thorough handwashing. Refill or replace hand sanitiser at entrances, in high traffic areas, and in easy reach around the workplace.
- Encouraging staff to remain at home if they are unwell – including senior staff and managers. Discouraging presenteeism is vital. It means ensuring everyone is fully aware of the symptoms of flu. Managers must treat flu seriously, watching for the signs of illness and sending staff with symptoms home – fast.
- Encourage eligible staff to take up the offer of a flu vaccine through the NHS. Any employer could also choose to offer all staff a flu vaccination through an occupational health provider. Absorbing the cost of these could reduce the risk of far larger costs from high levels of staff absence that impact productivity and escalate the need for temporary staffing.
- Foster a culture of wellness, in which staff aren’t derided for taking time off for sickness. Staff who remain healthy and at work should be supported and feel appreciated, if their workload increases due to colleague absences.
- Review absence policies and procedures. Despite having lived with a combined threat of flu and COVID for two years, many employers’ attendance policies – including those in the NHS – are based on historical patterns rather than the new normal.
- Train managers to deal appropriately with employee health and absence management. Give them robust processes and the right tools to manage their teams and ensure they know what support is available.
- Recognise that fears of a ‘twindemic’ are real and may be causing nervousness among employees about catching flu, COVID, or both. Consider a return to remote working where practical and requested.
- Reducing the spread of respiratory infections in the workplace – UKHSA
- Seasonal influenza: guidance, data and analysis – UKHSA
- Coronavirus (COVID) – Advice for workplaces – HSE
Effective absence management comes from creating a positive employee health culture, adopting connected tools and platforms that can appropriately manage health and absence management data and activities, and excellent support for line managers.
Empactis Absence Manager software is part of our employee health management platform, the only fully integrated platform designed for this purpose.