Making matters worse, according to one workplace authority, is the tendency of employees concerned about job security to keep coming to the office despite their apparent illness.
"The economy is still on shaky ground and many workers continue to be worried about losing their jobs, despite the fact that annual layoffs are at the lowest level since the late 1990s. In this environment, workers are reluctant to call in sick or even use vacation days. Of course, this has significant negative consequences for the workplace, where the sick worker is not only performing at a reduced capacity but also likely to infect others," said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that, on average, seasonal flu outbreaks cost the nation's employers $10.4 billion in direct costs of hospitalizations and outpatient visits. That does not include the indirect costs related to lost productivity and absenteeism.
This year, the cost to businesses may be significantly higher in light of the increased number of cases. So far, 29 of 41 states reporting flu cases say the outbreak is at "severe" levels. According to a report in the New York Daily News, the number of cases in the state has already surpassed 15,000, compared to just 4,400 reported cases during last year's entire flu season. "Unfortunately, we are now entering what is typically the peak time for catching the flu. January and February are considered the heaviest period of the flu season that stretches from October into March. So, companies that may already be shorthanded coming out of the recession could find themselves struggling to keep up with demand in the weeks ahead as absenteeism claims more manpower," said Challenger.
"While sick employees may think they are doing the right thing by 'toughing it out' and coming into work when ill, the fact is they are only making matters worse. Whether it is motivated by job security or a desire to continue making a contribution in an overburdened workplace, presenteeism, as it has come to be called, only spreads illness to more workers and further damages the employers ability to meet demand," he added.
"Having an effective leave policy is critical in preventing an office-wide outbreak of the flu. You want to encourage workers to stay home when they are sick so they do not spread illness to co-workers. You also want them to stay home to care for sick children so they are not forced to go to school and spread the virus to other kids," said Challenger.
"Companies would also be wise to prepare for the worst in order to ensure continuity in the wake of an outbreak. They need to consider not just the possibility of their own workforce being depleted by absenteeism, but also of the likelihood of their suppliers being hobbled. A company might be running at 95 percent capacity, but if a supplier cannot deliver key parts because half of its workers are sick, it could still find itself unable to keep its operations running," he continued.
According to Challenger, one of the most effective ways to prevent the flu from spreading through the workplace would be to become a predominantly telecommuting workforce. Any employee who can do his or her work from home with a computer and phone should be doing so prior to an outbreak. "For those who must go to the workplace, such as retail workers and hands-on service providers, companies should enforce a three-foot minimum buffer between all personnel at all times. Employees should also be encouraged, if not compelled, to follow strict hygienic practices, including washing hands regularly and using anti-bacterial wipes to keep their work area, phone, keyboard and mouse clean.
"More and more Americans are adopting the practice of sneezing and coughing into the crook of their arms instead of their hands. We may soon see more wearing masks and taking other measures to prevent the spread of the flu and other illnesses," said Challenger.
In addition to encouraging workers to step up hygiene efforts, the CDC recommends two strategies for businesses and employers to help fight the flu: 1) host a flu vaccination clinic in the workplace; and 2) promote flu vaccination in the community.
Challenger offered some other steps employers might consider with the peak of flu season upon us:
Increase the number of shifts. This will reduce the number of people working in the office at one time.
Limit meetings. If there is no need to gather large groups of workers in a confined space then do not do it. Conduct meetings via conference calls. Bigger companies may want to consider video conferencing.
Expand telecommuting. Determine who can work from home or other locations. This will keep people off of public transportation and out of the office.
Allow sick workers to stay home without fear losing their jobs.
Institute flexible leave policies to allow parents to care for an ill child or one who is home due to school closures.
Provide no-touch trash cans and hand sanitizer.
Encourage employees to wash their hands frequently, avoid handshaking and take other hygienic precautions such as wearing a mask in heavily populated work areas.
Assign someone to the post of flu czar or workplace illness coordinator, who would be responsible for monitoring absenteeism rates, coordinating leave and informing employees of company measure to prevent and/or respond to outbreak.