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How to Keep Cold and Flu Out of the Office

Cold and flu season is here. How do you keep sick employees from becoming a drain on productivity?

Seasonal illness is rearing its ugly head at Socialcast Inc., a San Francisco company that creates business collaboration software. One of the company's 30 employees was out recently with a bad cold and sinus headache. Another employee went home with a stomach bug. Yet another stayed home with cold symptoms. "In the last couple of weeks, we've definitely seen a pickup [in illness]," says founder and chief executive Tim Young.

Nathan Reis is also seeing more sickness among the 100 sales and customer-service employees at his 4-year-old Scottsdale, Ariz., payment-processing company Entrust Bankcard LLC. Even Reis, the company's founder and chief executive officer, isn't immune. "I just got over strep throat," he admits.

The threat cold-and-flu season poses to companies isn’t something to sneeze at. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the flu alone costs U.S. companies $10.4 billion in direct costs including hospitalizations and outpatient visits. The CDC also estimates up to one-fifth of the U.S. population will get the flu in a given flu season, and more than 200,000 Americans will be hospitalized with seasonal, flu-related complications.

This year's flu is already making the rounds. "What we see circulating is H3N2 and the pandemic H1N1 primarily, with some Influenza B," says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Despite warnings from public health officials, many Americans aren't rushing to get their flu shots. A recent Consumer Reports survey of 1,500 U.S. adults found that only 37 percent plan to be vaccinated.

In the sickly economy, many employees are hesitant to take sick days. A survey conducted by Staples Advantage, the business-to-business arm of office products retailer Staples Inc., found 65 percent of employees are coming to work sick. Only 80 percent are cleaning their work areas once a week or less, making any work area a potential hot zone for germs.

Put it all together, and employers could face one pesky pathogen after another this winter. Small firms are even more vulnerable to productivity losses due to seasonal illness. The "absenteeism calculator" at Healthyworkplaceproject.com, estimates a 25-employee company loses $33,000 every year to lost productivity, sick days and temporary workers brought in to replace sick employees. Healthyworkplaceprojet.com is a website run by business health products supplier Kimberly-Clark Worldwide Inc. that educates employers and employees about germs in the workplace and how to reduce workplace absences due to illness.

Reis points out that, just like taxes, the flu has a season. "The beauty about the flu season is that it's predictable, and there are simple things you can do that are not expensive," he says.

Keeping sick employees from becoming a drain on productivity often requires strong policies, good management and a healthy dose of leadership. The CDC's employer-planning guides can be a good place to start.

Here are 10 things both you and your employees can do to keep cold and flu from sapping productivity this winter.

  1. Encourage employee vaccinations. At Socialcast, employees receive reminders about local flu-shot clinics and a nurse stopped by last month to offer flu shots. The company's third-party human-resources provider, Kingwood, Texas-based Administaff Inc., arranged that. Young estimates that three-fourths of the company's employees will receive vaccinations. "Encouraging that kind of preventative care is really key," Young says.

    But requiring the flu shot as a condition of employment is a potential minefield for employers. What if an employee has a bad reaction to an employer-mandated immunization, or someone claims exemption for religious or medical reasons? Given the Pandora's box of potential problems, it's best to simply encourage employees to get vaccinated but stop far short of requiring it.
  2. Set an example. Don't contradict your own sick policies. If employees see the boss powering through a bad cold instead of staying home, they'll think they should do the same thing. Reis came to work last year with flu symptoms, and the company’s president told him to go home. "He [said], 'You're setting a bad example,' and I was thinking, 'I'm a trouper,' " Reis says. He lost nine days at the office to swine flu. "It was nice to have someone say, 'Get out of here,' " Reis says. "What I needed to do was stay home."
  3. Wash your hands. Studies show hand washing is still one of the most effective ways to stop illness. Encourage employees to wash their hands, but don't sound like their mom when you're doing it. Socialcast posts humorous reminders about hand washing in the break rooms and restrooms. "They're funny signs, so it doesn't feel like we're telling people what to do," Young says. 
  4. Use your elbow. Who wants to shake the hand of someone who has just sneezed all over it? Teach employees to cough into their elbows instead.
  5. Provide sanitizing products. Provide hand sanitizer, wipes, disinfecting sprays and towels for employees to clean their desks and keyboards a few times a week, if not daily. Reis estimates Entrust Bankcard spends $40 a month on hand sanitizer. 
  6. Tell sick employees to stay home. Do employees feel comfortable taking sick days when they're really sick? It's your job as a leader to make sure employees know they should stay home when they're contagious. "People who are sick should not go to work," says Michael Osterholm.
  7. Plan for seasonal increased sick days. Prepare telecommuting options for contagious employees. At Socialcast, sick employees are set up to work from home if they're feeling up to it. Unless they're laid low by a bad flu, most employees can work a little bit from home. Ask the employee what sounds reasonable. 
  8. Promote personal space. "Social distancing" techniques such as refraining from handshakes and standing at least 3-feet apart can slow the spread of cold and flu during peak season. 
  9. Go hands-free. Moving toward hands-free appliances such as automatic sinks and toilets, automatic soap and paper towel dispensers and airflow hand-dryers could pay off down the line in saved sick days.
  10. Vaccinate your children. Schools can be virtual petri dishes. Your kids get sick, then you get sick and, before you can say, "Ah-choo," you've lost a week's worth of productivity. Vaccines are a matter of parental debate, but the flu shot (or flu mist) is still the best bet for maintaining wellness at home.

The little things employers do also can send a big message. For example, Socialcast sent a pizza to the employee who was out with a bad cold and sinus headache. This "get well" gesture was "kind of an odd thing to do, but we wanted him to know that we care," Young says. "How you deal with people not only impacts the employee who is sick but also other people in the company."  

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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