Small Business: Fighting the flu

Influenza can spread quickly throughout the workplace, experts

Influenza can spread quickly throughout the workplace, experts say, making it critical for businesses to take steps to help prevent it. When the bug hits the owner, there may be no choice but to work from bed. (Credit: iStock)

Jamie Herzlich

Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday.

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'Tis the season for holiday cheer, yuletide greetings . . . and influenza.

Flu season is upon us and can continue through May, according to Dr. Tim Uyeki, chief medical officer in the Influenza Division at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Influenza can spread quickly throughout the workplace, making it critical for businesses to take steps to help prevent it.

"Influenza is a very contagious respiratory disease," says Uyeki, noting that flu activity in the United States has increased a lot in the past couple of weeks and is expected to continue to increase in coming weeks and months.

While last season overall was mild, this season appears to be more severe, he notes, adding that the flu normally peaks from January to March. This year it's off to an early start, the CDC reports.

While influenza can be mistaken for a common cold, symptoms tend to come on all at once, says Uyeki. These often include onset of high fever, dry cough, headache, sore throat and generalized muscle aches.

"This is a serious viral infection that can cause a great deal of absenteeism and even a loss of productivity after the worker comes back from their acute illness," says Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. They could feel weakened for a week or more after returning to work, he notes.

That's why taking preventive measures make sense.

Encouraging employees to get vaccinated or offering on-site vaccinations is one of the best ways to prevent the flu. If workers go off-site and aren't covered for the vaccine, perhaps the employer could help cover the costs, notes Schaffner.

Melville-based H2M Architects & Engineers does that. They offer employees and their spouses, and children over the age of 18, free on-site flu vaccinations. And if employees go off-site to get vaccinated and bring back a receipt, the company will reimburse them, says H2M human resources director Liz Uzzo.

Other preventive measures, aside from vaccinations, include making hand sanitizers and sanitizing wipes available, Schaffner suggests.

H2M has hand sanitizer dispensers throughout its offices, as do some other Long Island companies, including Overseas Military Sales Group in Woodbury and Leviton Manufacturing Co. Inc. in Melville, which both offer employees on-site flu shots.

"We're very health-conscious," says Fran Ruderman, vice president of human resources at Leviton, a manufacturer of electrical wiring devices.

Employees should be encouraged to go home if they're sick and stay home until they've recovered. That should be at least one day after their fever has broken, says Uyeki. The CDC offers more seasonal flu information for businesses at cdc.gov/flu/business.

Businesses need to educate employees about the signs of flu and importance of keeping their immunity up, other experts say.

"Every person should get their vitamin D levels checked," advises Dr. Matthew Lewis, a wellness expert and founder of a nutrition clinic in Plainview called ONE with Dr. Matt. "Vitamin D regulates immune function."

During a physical exam, ask for the vitamin level to be checked as part of routine blood work, says Lewis.

Clean, healthy drinking water should also be provided at the workplace to help employees avoid dehydration, which can lower their resistance to germs, he advises.

"If employers can give out good information and educate their employees, they can make a big difference," says Lewis.