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Flu Season at WorkIt’s inevitable: As the temperature drops, the number of employees who come to work sniffling, sneezing, and coughing goes up — and it doesn’t take long before you have what amounts to a mini-epidemic of sick people in the office. And you aren’t alone. Across the country, businesses lose as much as $7 billion per year in productivity and health care costs due to the flu and related illnesses. Collectively, American employees take more than 100,000 sick days every year during flu season.

While winter illnesses are a fact of life, they don’t have to be. Experts suggest, though, that many of these sick days could be avoided with the proper precautions. As an employer, you have a responsibility to help prevent the spread of influenza and other contagious diseases, and that requires both education and creating a culture of wellness.

Flu Shots Are Still Important

While the 2013-2014 flu season was widely considered one of the worst in recent memory, experts are predicting that the 2014-2015 flu season could be even worse. That is in large part because the flu vaccine that was developed for is showing signs of being less effective than anticipated.

Every year, scientists develop the flu vaccine based on research, trends, and the strain of flu that’s expected to be the most prevalent. Because there are hundreds of potential flu strains that could be active at any point, it’s virtually impossible to predict with exact certainty which will be the most common, or to protect against all of them. That’s why it’s possible to still come down with the flu even if you’ve been vaccinated; in all likelihood, you have been exposed to a different strain of the virus.

This year, as per protocol, scientists made educated guesses as to which strain would be the dominant one, and unfortunately, based on an examination of the early cases of the flu, this year’s vaccine is not effective at preventing that strain. However, doctors are quick to point out that this is not a reason to forgo the flu shot all together. The flu vaccine is designed to protect against several strains of the virus, so even if it’s not effective for one strain, it will still provide immunity for the others.

As an employer, therefore, it’s still important that you encourage your employees to get their flu shots. A vaccine that’s not 100 percent matched is still better than no vaccine, as it can reduce the severity and duration of illness regardless of strain. Flu shots are considered preventive care under the Affordable Care Act, meaning that they will be covered by insurance, so cost should not be a deterrent to employees. Consider hosting a flu vaccination clinic in the office to make it more convenient for employees to get their shots, or extend break times to give employees time to see a health care provider.

Flu Season in the OfficeCreate a Culture of Wellness

Given the news about the flu vaccine this year — and the fact that some employees will still opt to forgo the vaccine for various reasons — you can still prevent the spread of illness in the office by creating a culture of wellness.

One of the most important aspects of creating a culture of wellness is to support an environment in which employees stay home when they are sick. According to one study, more than 60 percent of workers have gone to work when they are sick, most often because they are afraid of the repercussions, either financial or to their career, of staying home.

Many people feel that they are essential to the functioning of the business, and if they stay home sick, there will be bigger problems than a few sniffles. The problem, of course, is that sick employees spread germs that create more sick employees — and that can create real productivity issues.

To encourage employees to stay home when they are sick, take time to reiterate your company’s sick leave policy, and remind employees that they can do more harm than good coming to work ill. Spend some time developing contingency plans before there is an outbreak of illness to ensure that work stays on track if someone has to take a day off.

Finally, establish some guidelines for when employees absolutely must stay home. For example, anyone showing symptoms of the flu should stay home until they are feeling better or have been taking antiviral medications for 24 hours. Leaders can also set an example by staying home when they are sick. Employees often mirror their boss’ behavior, so if you come to work with a fever and cough, so will they.

If staying home isn’t practical — or the illness is just a minor cold — you can still encourage wellness by making it easy for employees to stop the spread of germs. Have hand sanitizer and tissues readily available, make sure there is plenty of soap at the sinks, and encourage employees to keep their work areas clean and germ free by cleaning and disinfecting desks, telephones, and keyboards on a regular basis.

It’s practically impossible to keep all employees from getting sick in the winter, but you can limit the number of sick days they take and keep the spread of germs under control by taking some basic precautions. Wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, get your flu shot, and start counting the days until spring.

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