As we head into the winter, workplaces could face the perfect storm: the ongoing threat of COVID-19 converging with seasonal influenza. Not only can these illnesses wreak havoc on people’s health, but they can also impact your business. One study found that employees who come to work sick cost employers twice as much in productivity losses than employees who stay home.1 And while many businesses are operating remotely, unplanned employee absences due to illness can derail project timelines.
On the positive side, the precautions many people have adopted to help stop the spread of COVID-19, such as physical distancing, hand washing and wearing masks, could lessen the impact of flu season.2 Still, it’s critically important for organizations to maintain their viral vigilance to keep their employees safe and their business healthy.
Here are some key considerations when preparing for ‘COVID and flu’ season this winter:
Double down on safety: You’ve heard these measures before, but with COVID fatigue setting in, it’s important to repeat them! Experts say colds, flu and COVID-19 are all spread by droplet transmission, and mask wearing and physical distancing work against these measures. 3 Reinforce your established safety protocols and continue to follow the cleaning and disinfecting measures outlined by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Educate employees: Flu and COVID-19 have some overlapping signs and symptoms, with the key difference being the loss of smell and loss of taste have not been reported with influenza. It is possible to be infected with both flu and COVID-19 at the same time, and cases of co-infection have been documented. 4 Educate employees on the symptoms for both illnesses and inform them about the risks, especially of co-infection.
Plan for absences: With both COVID-19 and influenza, businesses should prepare for the possibility that a large portion of their workforce may be unable to work at any given time. Your business continuity plan should cover how many absences the business can handle before operations are interrupted, and how to keep the business operating effectively.6 Communicate your company’s sick leave policy to employees and encourage them to stay home if they’re sick.
Support remote work: Wherever possible, continue to support remote work to help stop the transmission of both COVID-19 and influenza. If your business is operating remotely, you may have noticed that there are other benefits as well: studies have shown that when it’s done right, remote work can improve employee productivity, creativity and morale. 7 Moreover, there are cost savings of allowing employees to work at home, including savings on rent and utilities, cleaning services and food. 8 However, be sure to protect your business from any new or increased cyber exposures as remote employees come with new risks.
Develop a health-conscious culture: Use this opportunity to develop a strong health-conscious culture, including mental health. Some suggestions are: 1) Encourage employees to get exercise during their workday, such as a walk or run. 2) Create a fun workplace competition promoting healthy meals or getting daily steps in. 3) Make sure your supervisors regularly ask their teams not just about work tasks, but about their mental health, stress levels and how they’re feeling personally.9 Finally, communicate health and wellness resources available to employees, such as key benefits, free resources, and employee assistance programs.
Plan for shutdowns and restarts: While the first lockdown took everyone by surprise resulting in some unplanned shutdowns, businesses can use lessons learned to inform a response plan for possible additional shutdowns. Some preparation tips include: securing your vacant/unoccupied building; preparing financially, such as tightening up cash flow; staying in close contact with major suppliers and customers and adapting to new timelines; and developing new revenue streams.10 Once again, you’ll have to prepare for restarts as well, navigating everything from health and safety guidelines to safely restarting equipment.
Encourage vaccines: The risk of co-infection is yet another reason why it’s so important for people – particularly vulnerable populations – to consider flu vaccines this year. Companies can support employees in getting the flu shot by hosting on-site flu clinics for employees and their families.5 And when the time comes, employers can consider encouraging employees to get vaccinated for COVID-19.
While the future is uncertain, you can take steps to help keep your employees healthy and your business operating safely. A perfect storm may be coming, but defending against it all comes down to knowledge and preparation.
1 “Cold and flu season,” Workplace Safety & Prevention Services.”
2 “Coronavirus and the flu: A looming double threat,” Scientific American, Sept. 6, 2020.
3 “COVID-19 safety protocols will also protect you from colds, flu,” Healthline, Oct. 5, 2020.
4 “Flu, COVID-19 or both? Don’t overlook co-infection, CDC urges,” Sept. 17, 2020.
5 “Should companies enforce flu shots in Canada?” Monster Canada.
6 “Managing through flu and other epidemics in the workplace,” SHRM.
7 “The future of remote work,” American Psychological Association,” Oct. 1, 2019.
8 “Does working from home save companies money?” Business.com, June 16, 2020.
9 5 ways your business should prepare for a COVID-19 fall, Partner MD, Aug. 31, 2020.
10 “Impacts of COVID-19 & preparing for a second wave,” Decision Point Advisors, Sept. 22, 2020.