The NHS is bracing itself for what could be the worst flu season in history, and so should your business. It is one of the biggest causes of short-term illness and absence from work, costing an employer £522 per employee. And while most people recover within a few days to two weeks, for certain parts of the population it can be deadly.
On average, 600 people a year die in the UK from complications of flu, but in some years this can rise significantly. Flu also leads to hundreds of thousands of GP visits and tens of thousands of hospital stays a year, adding pressure to already stretched health services.
Influenza, or flu, is a very common and highly contagious viral disease. Symptoms can be mild to severe and include sore throat, fever, headache, muscle aches and soreness, congestion, chills and cough. While many of these symptoms are shared by the common cold, they are generally more severe and last longer with flu.
Those who get complications from flu may become very unwell and require hospital treatment. Those at most risk are people with underlying health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease or compromised immunity. Pregnant women, children and anyone over the age of 65 are also at increased risk. The most common complication is a bacterial chest infection that can develop into pneumonia.
The flu virus is transmitted from person to person by the droplets produced when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk and these droplets can travel some distance – as far as two metres – before they fall.
The droplets may land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or be inhaled into the lungs. But, highlighting the importance of good hygiene and the ready availability of hand sanitisers in the workplace, it is worth noting that the virus can also survive for up to 24 hours on hard surfaces, such as computer keyboards, telephones and door handles.
One in three people who become infected will be lucky enough not to show any symptoms but unfortunately for those around them, they can still pass it on. People are usually contagious for about a day before they begin to feel unwell and continue to be contagious for five to seven days after the sickness begins.
That’s certainly useful to bear in mind when it comes to employees returning to work after flu. If they come back too soon, not only are they unlikely to be at their most productive, the flu cycle will continue to perpetuate.
Treatment and prevention
As flu is a viral rather than bacterial infection, it doesn’t respond to antibiotics. At-risk groups may be prescribed antiviral medication although recovery usually comes without treatment. Instead the symptoms can be managed with over-the-counter medication.
Prevention is the ideal scenario. Good hygiene measures are key:
• Wash your hands regularly with soap and water
• Clean hard surfaces regularly such as telephone, computer keyboard, handrails and door handles
• “Catch it, Bin it, Kill it” (carry tissues and use them to catch your cough or sneeze. Dispose in the bin as soon as possible and clean your hands with soap and water as soon as you can.)
The vaccination is recommended for people at high risk for severe infections, including young children, pregnant women, people over the age of 65 and people with chronic illnesses, as well as anyone over the age of six months who would like to avoid contracting flu.
Unfortunately, one year’s flu vaccine will not be effective against the viruses that will circulate the next year because flu viruses are constantly changing. That’s why the vaccine, which usually contains three or four strains of the flu virus expected to be most prevalent in the upcoming flu season, needs to be administered annually.
Flu can be unpleasant for the individual, but it also has a significant impact on business. As with most health problems, prevention isn’t just a question of good health practice, it also enhances business performance.
For more information on workforce flu vaccinations or to book an appointment, call 01224 669 000 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Louise Slaney is medical director at Iqarus