Flu season: what small businesses need to know

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LIt’s that time of year: flu season may be at its worst.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seasonal flu activity typically peaks in January and February. This year, 35 states across the nation were experiencing widespread influenza activity as of January. In Pennsylvania specifically, there have been 2,100-plus influenza cases – and that number is growing.

No doubt, this time of year poses high health risks for individuals. But for small businesses, productivity and operations can be negatively affected by the flu as employees stay home, or are urged to stay home, to limit the threat of spreading flu to others in the workplace.

To help reduce the potential spread of the flu virus and maintain business operations, small-business owners should develop a comprehensive flu contingency plan before the start of flu season to minimize the impact of illness on their bottom lines.

A contingency plan should outline protocols for employees if they become ill as well as preventitive measures to take while in the office.

Here are five elements to consider:

(1) Educate employees on steps to help reduce the spread of the flu.

Education is the best way to help reduce the spread of the flu. Small businesses should develop a short document with helpful prevention tips and circulate it widely.

Below are a few items to include:

• Flu viruses spread in respiratory droplets through person-to-person or other close contact.

• Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough to help prevent spreading of the virus.

• If you are around people who are sick, avoid close contact to reduce the chance of getting their illness.

• Keep your hands clean, washing them regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth because they are entry points into your body for germs.

(2) Make it possible for employees to work from home to keep your business running.

What most adults don’t know is that they can spread the flu virus to others one day before symptoms develop, and up to seven days after becoming ill.

Small-business owners should make their employees aware of this fact and provide means to reduce in-person interactions, and subsequently the spread of flu in the office. This can help ensure effective business operations are maintained.

It is important that small businesses create a flexible work environment during this time and, if possible, allow employees to work from home, equipping them with the tools to do their jobs if needed. Then, when employees are not feeling well, they can stay home and still contribute remotely.

In a world where everyone is connected, employees also can easily leverage technologies such as teleconference, video conference, online meetings and other tools to keep critical functions operational and minimize business interruption.

(3) Keep work spaces clean by using Environmental Protection Agency-registered cleaners.

A clean office is one of the most effective ways to minimize the spread of germs. When buying cleaning supplies, small-business owners and office managers should read the label to make sure it states that the EPA has approved the product for effectiveness against the Influenza A virus.

Generally, human flu viruses can survive on surfaces for two to eight hours, so small-business owners should talk to employees about cleaning their desks on a frequent basis.

(4) Be open to deferring travel.

Small-business owners also should be open to deferring employee travel for business purposes.

If employees aren’t feeling well before a trip, there should be a protocol in place that allows them to defer it to a later date so that they are not sick while away from home. If the meeting is urgent and deferring travel is not an option, offer to hold the meeting via teleconference or video conference.

(5) Make the flu vaccine available for employees.

If possible, businesses should make the flu vaccine available for employees who are interested in voluntarily taking it.

For many, leaving the office to get the flu vaccine can be an inconvenience during the work day. An easy solution is to bring the vaccine directly to them so they can take care of this simple task quickly and easily.

The bottom line: The flu season can be bad for businesses – especially for small businesses that may have limited resources to deploy if/when their employees are affected.

For any questions, small businesses should consult their insurance agents for contingency tips and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention for additional suggestions on preventing the flu and maintaining good health habits including exercising, getting enough rest and eating healthy, balanced meals.

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