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Flu Prevention is Good for Business

Patrick Boshell
October 17, 2012

GettyImages-680437344.jpgEvery year, influenza, or the flu affects not just our health, but often the bottom line for many businesses.  Regardless if an employer is large or small, the flu can be a big disruption and its true financial impact may be more than you think. 


Queen's University medical researchers recently released some key findings from the first study of its kind done in Canada on the impact of colds and flu on absenteeism, the workplace, and the economy. 


Researchers found that the work force goes to work rather than calling in sick - resulting in substantial losses of productivity and increased costs.  83 percent of the participants in the survey said they continued to attend work or school while experiencing symptoms of an influenza-like illness.  This has been termed "presenteeism" and costs employers twice as much in productivity losses for employees who come to work sick than for those who stay home.


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All of this infection adds up to a significant economic cost as researchers cite direct costs due to lost productivity from colds at $25 billion in the U.S. Taking into consideration both indirect (lost productivity) and direct (doctor visits and medicine) costs, of colds, the figure in the U.S. annually is $40 billion.


Flu Season


According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the flu season usually runs from November to April and anywhere from 3 to 7.5 million Canadians will get the flu in any given year.   Most people recover fully in about a week or 10 days, but some may develop serious complications.  Each flu season approximately 20,000 Canadians are hospitalized because of the flu and its complications.  Additionally 2,000 to 8,000 Canadians, mostly seniors, die from pneumonia and other serious complications.


Influenza is spread from person to person via droplets when coughing or sneezing and by touching objects and surfaces that are contaminated with the virus (i.e. doorknobs and telephones) and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. The influenza virus may persist for hours in dried mucus and be transmitted by direct contact. It is spread very easily indoors, which is why it is so prevalent in the winter months in northern countries, when people spend more time together inside.


Flu Prevention


According to the Community and Hospital Infection Control Association - Canada (CHICA) the following measures will help to reduce the spread of influenza.


  • Clean hands thoroughly and frequently with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub, especially after contact with the eyes, nose, mouth or secretion
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Avoid handling soiled tissues or objects used by an ill person
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or with your sleeve; throw the tissue in the trash after use and clean your hands
  • Get an influenza immunization
  • Stay home from work or school when ill and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them
  • Follow the recommendations of your local public health unit

Workplace Infection Prevention


Workplaces and public facilities where people interact in close proximity are at a higher risk for the spread of germs. According to one recent workplace microbial survey, "desk top surfaces, computer keyboards, mouse and telephone receivers are more contaminated than restroom toilet seats."   


One of the challenges is that people do not wash their hands frequently or adequately enough.   In fact, the average person washes their hands for around 9 seconds and only 16% wash their hands for the recommended time periods.   In addition, separate washroom studies from around the world show that less than 80% of people wash their hands at all which means that 1 in every 5 of your co-workers is walking around with unwashed hands. 


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Studies show that for every employee who comes to work sick, up to 18% of their colleagues will become infected as a result.  Since our hands are responsible for the spread of 80% of common infectious diseases, effective hand hygiene continues to be universally recognized as the smartest, most cost effective means of infection control in the workplace.


Hand Hygiene 101


The Centre for Disease Control published the following helpful tips for washing with soap and water as part of its "Clean Hands Save Lives" initiative.


  • Place your hands together under water (warm if possible)
  • Rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds (with soap if possible)
  • Wash hands thoroughly, including wrists, palms, back of hands and under the fingernails
  • Clean dirt from under the fingernails
  • Rinse the soap from your hands
  • Dry hands completely with a clean towel if possible (helps to remove germs)
  • Pat your skin rather than rubbing to avoid chapping and cracking
  • If soap and water are not available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer


When soap and water are not available or hands are not visibly soiled, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to cleanse hands. In addition to improved spreadability, foaming formulations have been shown to provide superior compliance and efficacy. When combined with hand washing, the effectiveness of alcohol hand sanitizers is increased and can reduce the risk of infection by, on average, 20 to 40 per cent. 



Making Hand Hygiene Contagious


For many organizations, implementing and maintaining appropriate hand hygiene practices is a daily challenge, because of inconsistent hand hygiene habits across the population.


Studies show that organizations can reduce the risk of spreading germs by adopting good hand hygiene practices, providing adequate hand washing facilities and promoting the use of a hand sanitizer applied regularly to clean, dry hands to compliment routine hand washing. 


There are also simple, practical steps that employers can take as part of their flu season procedures, such as providing the workforce with information on flu vaccination clinics and improving cleaning procedures in the workplace.


Ultimately, businesses need to focus on health management and infection prevention rather than absence management.  Queens University Researchers conclude that, "Preventive measures that result in even a modest reduction in colds and flu would have a significant impact on reducing costs to the healthcare system and impact on the economy." 


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