As new cases of the Wuhan coronavirus multiply, prompting the US to close borders to China and travelers to be forcibly quarantined, it’s tough not to panic. Before you buy the store out of face masks and coat yourself in hand sanitizer, consider this fact: “regular” influenza has already killed over 3,000 people in the US this year.
While the coronavirus is undoubtedly deadly, the threat of flu is much higher. For your office, the basics of workplace flu safety remain the same. It’s still important we pay attention to them because we’re on track for a particularly deadly flu season again in 2020.
In this post, we’ll explain a few steps you can take to help employees avoid workplace flu and, yes, the coronavirus, too.
Support workplace flu safety with a remote work culture
Remote work gave us benefits like lower commuting costs, better work-life balance—and an easy solution to keeping viruses out of the office.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), employees who have flu-like symptoms should stay home until 24 hours after their fever ends. Of course, not everyone with the flu will have a fever. The safest option, especially during flu season, is to encourage employees to go home when they feel unwell and stay there until they feel better.
That’s an easier sell when employees can log on from home. But even when they know they should stay home, it might be tempting to come in for an important meeting. Some of us have parents who taught us that you should come to work unless you’re on death’s door. In terms of the spread of disease, that attitude can lead to trouble.
If remote work is a possibility for your company, you can minimize your risk around workplace flu season by encouraging employees to work from home when they’re feeling “off.”
Is physically showing up worth getting your coworker—or their child—sick? Consider what you can do to make the choice easier. It might be a matter of including a video conference link in every meeting invitation, or simply reminding employees that remote work doesn’t have to be justified with a doctor’s note.
Like most company culture shifts, this one also starts at the top. You can encourage leaders to set an example and stay home when they’re sick. Seeing my boss head home when he feels ill instead of “powering through” makes me feel comfortable staying home when I’m under the weather.
When employees are sick enough to take time off work, telemedicine can help them find relief fast. Most employees don’t know how to use this benefit, so a little education at the beginning of flu season can go a long way. HealthJoy’s telemedicine providers typically meet with patients in about 10 minutes, meaning they can skip the waiting room—not a place anyone wants to be during flu season (we also have the highest telemedicine utilization in the industry.) Our medical professionals can even prescribe medications like Tamiflu, meaning they can get what they need to start feeling better without even leaving the house.
Focus wellness initiatives around flu season
Wellness initiatives have grown in popularity as employers recognize that preventive care might help them get a handle on wildly rising healthcare costs. Preventive care has its place in smoothing workplace flu season, too, since a healthy workplace is less vulnerable to sickness. You can start early with preventive wellness screenings, flu shots, and healthy eating campaigns. Once flu season is here, consider rolling a few of these immune-boosting initiatives as well.
- Make water more appealing. No matter how hard we try, offices can’t run on coffee alone. It’s tough to stay hydrated when the weather is cold, but hydration is especially important during flu season. To make it more appealing, offer sparkling water and herbal tea in addition to caffeinated beverages.
- Order healthy options for company lunch. Pizza may be inexpensive, but offering employees healthier options with plenty of fruit and vegetables is a better bet for workplace immunity.
- Encourage physical activity. Does your company offer a gym stipend or have an on-site fitness center? Encourage a lunchtime workout group. If not, can you organize a group discount at a local gym or studio? Exercise boosts immune health, so doing everything you can to encourage physical activity is especially important during flu season.
- Offer opportunities for stress relief. Stress affects immune health, and during a particularly busy season, can leave your entire workplace exposed. Whether it’s in-office yoga, regular lunchtime walks, or a quiet room to decompress, give employees space to blow off steam throughout the day.
- Highlight virtual medicine. Offer a lunch-and-learn highlighting your telemedicine benefit, how to access it, and how it can help. Do they need to dig up a certain number or access a specific website? Employees with HealthJoy can easily access medical professionals from their phone without navigating a maze of numbers.
Stay vigilant about seasonal flu
Most of your employees will have had the flu at least once. They probably remember it as an uncomfortable experience which, for most of us, ended after a few days. When we’re relaxed about flu season, we get careless with the simple steps the CDC says are best at preventing their spread. That can be especially deadly for vulnerable populations. Skipping your flu shot or carelessly sneezing on a coworker might mean giving the virus to an elderly relative or a pregnant partner, and that can be deadly.
The reality is that the common flu can be deadly—in fact, seasonal influenza strains infected between 9 and 45 million people and killed 61,000 last year, making 2018-2019 the deadliest season in nearly 4 decades. 2020 is expected to be even more deadly, with as many as 25,000 people dying across the US so far this flu season. So far this year, the influenza strains we think of as run-of-the-mill are still deadlier than the Wuhan Coronavirus outbreaks making headlines.
The stakes are high, but it’s too easy for employees to ignore your regular reminders. To break through the noise, come up with creative ways to remind employees of basic flu safety steps like washing hands, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home.
Consider the communication channels where employees already hang out. An email or Slack channel message might be enough of a reminder for employees to step up their hand washing. Push notifications and SMS messages tend to hit even more forcefully, so they can work for critical reminders, like a flu shot. If your company has this technology or works with HealthJoy’s equipped benefits experience platform, flu season is the perfect time to put push notifications to use.
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Make a vaccination and disaster plan
If you’re reading this early in the flu season, you must do everything in your power to encourage employee flu shots. Flu shots not only prevent your risk of illness and reduce the severity of symptoms but protect the people around you.
Encouraging flu shots is vital for keeping your workplace healthy through flu season. Offer them at an on-site or partner clinic, or remind employees via email, Slack, or SMS if their employee benefits will cover a vaccination. Give employees time to get a vaccination during the workday if you can’t offer them onsite.
As you approach the flu season, it’s also essential to establish a disaster plan that covers illness. Make sure management knows what to do if a majority of employees fall ill, or if you close the office due to illness. If your company can work remotely, at what point does that become the best choice for everyone’s health? Consider establishing an emergency action plan that includes illness, even if it isn’t required. You can never be too careful.
Build a culture that supports seasonal wellness
News of the coronavirus might be alarming, but so are statistics about seasonal flu. No matter what the headlines say, the basics of workplace wellness during flu season remain the same. Emphasizing remote work whenever possible, encouraging basic wellness, and finding new ways to communicate old safety steps are critical in preventing the spread of both seasonal flu and newer diseases like the Wuhan coronavirus.
When employees are sick, remind them that virtual medicine is often a faster, healthier, and less expensive solution. HealthJoy members get 24/7 access to virtual medical providers who can diagnose and treat flu and other viruses in just a few minutes, without running the risk of spreading the illness to others. This service is wildly helpful during flu season, especially for employees with sick children or families where everyone is under the weather (see our post Why Telemedicine Use is Skyrocketing for more).
If they prefer to meet with a provider in person, HealthJoy’s team can run a provider search to make sure they choose the best in-network doctor. We are always here to help our members and clients.
In the end, adding virtual care and emphasizing flu season safety are steps toward creating the kind of company culture where employees feel empowered to keep themselves and their coworkers healthy.