Flu season may be inevitable, but it doesn’t always have to wipe out your workforce.
Healthy employees are undoubtedly happier than unwell employees, but they’re also better for your bottom line. And with an unwell workforce reducing company productivity and increasing employee health insurance premiums, having a solid flu season strategy is vital for all companies.
Doctors in the UAE say the current flu season is one of the worst in recent years, and this makes it even more important to take action.
Here are just four key steps your business can take to keep its workforce healthy this flu season.
The four best ways to reduce the risk of flu among employees
Prevention is always the best cure, so advise your employees on the availability of flu shots. These can be arranged by a healthcare provider or insurance broker. Many people remain unaware of this service, but it is undoubtedly the best way to minimise the chances of an office flu epidemic.
Emphasising flu shots as the first line of defense, you should also educate staff on effective ways of minimising the spread of infectious disease in the workplace by improving their hygiene.
Then turn your focus to keeping the office clean using disinfectants multiple times per day. Don’t forget about guaranteed infection-breeding grounds such as air conditioning (AC) systems. They will also need to be cleaned regularly.
Finally, it’s vital to create a company culture that encourages unwell staff members to stay at home until they are no longer infectious.
These are the most effective strategies, but let’s now take a closer look at how to best implement them.
1. Educate staff members on essential hygiene practices for preventing spread of illness
Provide information or workshops on how staff can reduce illnesses by improving their office hygiene.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), up to 20 per cent of the population can be infected by the flu virus during the winter months. As a droplet infection that’s spread by coughs and sneezes, an open-plan office creates the perfect setting for flu to spread like wildfire.
It is therefore important for you to educate your staff on the best practices for minimising the spread of flu or any other communicable disease.
How to minimise the spread of flu in your office
It may sound obvious, but encouraging your employees to cover their mouths when coughing and sneezing is a good place to start. Also encourage them to wash their hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer after coughing and sneezing, and at regular intervals during the day.
These are basic practices that most adults are aware of, but can easily forget during a busy day.
Nudge your employees to take action by providing tissues, alcohol wipes, non-touch alcohol-based sanitisers, and pedal bins throughout the office.
Figures from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that in the US, the flu costs companies $7bn per year in lost productivity.
While UAE data is in short supply on this topic, it’s not a stretch to say flu has considerable impact in the UAE as well. This means that making these small changes could transform your bottom line.
2. Encourage those who feel sick to work from home
Minimise the spread of infection by encouraging unwell employees to work from home.
Eliminating the source of infection is the easiest way to keep the spread of a communicable infection under control. However, this can prove difficult when your employees believe that coming to work when ill is a sign of a strong work ethic.
According to the CDC, the spread of flu in the US costs around $4.6bn in medications and hospital visits. Rising healthcare prices in the Gulf region suggest that the cost of treating flu is high in the UAE too. As healthcare costs are often covered by employee health insurance, staff who come to work while ill can end up hurting themselves and your bottom line.
The best way to keep sick employees away from the office
Deep-seated beliefs that it is better to work while ill can be hard to tackle, but small changes, such as using conference calls and offering telecommuting opportunities can make all the difference.
You can also offer flexible start and finish times to reduce the number of people working in the office at any given time.
3. Ensure desks and communal areas are always kept clean
Regular cleaning of desks, computer keyboards and other frequently-used equipment is essential for preventing the spread of the flu virus.
Diseases such as flu can be caught by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes. This is why it’s so important to keep workplace surfaces clean and germ-free.
After making the effort to maximise your employees’ hygiene practices and encourage working from home, keeping surfaces virus free is an essential addition.
How to keep contact points low risk
Focus on all communal spaces, including eating areas, toilet and break-out rooms. Ensure that surfaces in these areas are cleaned several times per day using disinfectants that kill bacteria and viruses.
Prevent the spread of infection by providing employees with alcohol wipes to clean commonly touched surfaces such as phones, computer keyboards, and door handles.
4. Have your AC units in the office regularly cleaned
Air-borne bacteria and allergens can worsen flu symptoms, so have your AC regularly cleaned.
Research shows that while AC itself doesn’t necessarily make a person ill, stagnated water in AC systems can contain bacteria like Legionella that can cause serious lung infections. Furthermore, AC units that are not regularly cleaned can accumulate dust mites, mould and pollen.
This is particularly problematic during flu season because research suggests that flu infection increases a person’s sensitivity to allergens like dust mites. You can avoid the risk of worsening your staff’s health during flu season by having office AC units regularly cleaned.
How and when to clean AC units
The key to preventing infection from AC units is to have them professionally cleaned. This also prevents the silent build-up of bacteria and allergens. Cleaning them once every quarter is a good rule of thumb, but be sure to check the relevant workplace regulations in your geographical location.
Winning the fight against flu
With the UAE in the midst of its worst flu season in recent years, education is the best way to keep your employees healthy. By encouraging them to arrange flu shots and follow strict hygiene regimes, you can minimise the risks. When they fully understand how quickly and easily flu can be spread, employees become better placed to make the crucial decisions that can prevent an outbreak.
Imparting this knowledge is only one half of the equation – you must also remind your workforce to act on this information on a regular basis.
Nothing beats practical prompts like tissues, alcohol wipes and hand sanitisers, as well as offering telecommuting and conference calls to encourage working from home when ill. Keeping your employees in good health will not only keep them happy, it will also keep productivity high and health-related costs low.
M. Rajendran is the deputy managing director – Middle East and CEO of UAE at Al Futtaim Willis