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How to prevent the flu from taking over your office

Winter months can be tough on small businesses. Retailers face the looming post-holidays sales slump while sudden snowstorms can block both roads and consistent cash flow for companies in other industries.

But one of the biggest struggles all small businesses face in the winter is — in fact — microscopic. According to Funding Circle’s 2016 survey, the flu impacts the productivity and operations of nearly half of all small businesses.* With the flu reportedly costing all US employers up to $7 billion per year in sick days and lost productivity, flu season is nothing to sniffle at.

What is the flu and why is it so bad?

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), common flu symptoms include: fever and chills, a sore throat, a cough, muscle aches, fatigue, headaches, and a runny or stuffy nose.

Between 5% and 20% of Americans get the flu every year, resulting in almost 200,000 hospitalizations. While the more severe cases are usually found in infants and the elderly, even a healthy adult with a resilient immune system can take as long as a week to recover from the flu.

The flu impacts the productivity and operations of nearly half of all small businesses, costing all US employers up to $7 billion per year.

Many small businesses rely on a core set of employees to keep things running, but because the flu is so contagious, a small outbreak can sideline entire teams and bring your operations to a grinding halt. The CDC reports that 111 million workdays are lost annually to the flu in the US — keep reading to find out how to prevent the flu from taking over your office.

True facts about the flu from the CDC

It can be tricky to prevent the flu, but if you have a good understanding of what you’re up against, you have a pretty good fighting chance. “The flu” and all of the achy, sniffling, and tired feelings that come with it are all the result of a viral infection. There are actually hundreds of different strains of influenza viruses that can make you sick, and every winter a different group thrive and multiply while spreading across the country.

The flu is mainly spread by coughing and sneezing — the very things the virus causes you to do uncontrollably. One of the scariest things about the flu is the fact that an infected individual can pass the virus on to another person more than a day before they start showing symptoms and up to seven days after they become noticeably sick. The flu spreads most rampantly in the fall and winter, with flu season usually peaking in February, but lasting as long as March or April.

In 2015-2016, Google searches for “flu symptoms” peaked the second week of March, about when the CDC discovered the most reported cases of influenza. Meanwhile, searches for “flu shot” peaked in October — precisely when the CDC recommends most people start getting vaccinated.

During these cold months, we tend to shut ourselves in our homes and offices to avoid the frigid air, but this creates prime environments for the flu and other contagious diseases to spread. The common cold, for example, is also generously shared among co-workers during this period — causing mild nasal congestion or a sore throat, that is often mistaken for a mild case of the flu. The flu, however, is much more serious and can be easily identified if you remember the F.A.C.T.S.

F.A.C.T.S. is an acronym that helps you remember symptoms that are common with the flu but rare with a cold: Fever, Aches, Chills, Tiredness, Symptom onset within 3-6 hours.

Fortunately, many of the steps that you can take to prevent the flu from taking over your office can also effectively stop the spread of other illnesses that may afflict you and your employees.

1. Help employees get vaccinated

The flu shot is probably your best line of defense against influenza, and helping your employees get vaccinated can decrease the chance they miss work for prolonged periods of time. Studies have shown that the flu vaccine can protect them from getting the flu, make the flu less severe if they do get it, and decrease the likelihood that an infected person will pass the flu to their co-workers.

It takes a couple days after receiving the shot for your body to build up its immunity, so the sooner your employees get vaccinated, the better. The CDC recommends getting your employees vaccinated in October for coverage all season long, but they say it’s still worth getting vaccinated well into January.

For the 2015-2016 flu season, the CDC estimates vaccinations prevented around 5.1 million illnesses, 2.5 million medical visits, and 71,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations.

The easiest way to make sure your employees are vaccinated? Bring the shots to them. Local pharmacies and community vaccinators can be contracted to provide flu shots on-site, and you can even subsidize the co-pay if your employees’ insurance doesn’t entirely cover the shot. If you don’t have the time or resources for an on-site clinic, use vaccinefinder.org to find the nearest clinic and encourage them to go on their own time.

Some small business owners will offer additional PTO or allow employees to take a longer unpaid lunch break so they can go get vaccinated. While this might cost you an hour of manpower upfront, having healthier employees will pay for itself many times over.

2. Keep your office clean and stocked

Your next step to flu prevention starts with simple hygiene. Place a container of hand sanitizer at the front door and a few strategic locations around the office and make sure your soap dispensers are well stocked throughout the winter.

Even if you have the world’s best sick leave policy, the combination of cold weather and allergies will inevitably lead to some sniffles during the winter. Keep tissues and trash cans readily available throughout the office so folks don’t use their sleeves or leave used tissues on their desk (blech!).

If you have a kitchen or breakroom, this is a good time to double check it’s stocked with healthy items including fruit, tea, and Emergen-C. Don’t have time to run to the store? Delivery services like Peapod and Boston Organics can make this task a no-brainer all year round.

3. Encourage health-conscious behavior

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him use soap when he washes his hooves. You can, however, post signs around the office encouraging employees to wash their hands regularly with soap and water and to cough or sneeze into their elbows instead of their hands. It may seem trivial, but this small act can go a long way towards keeping your team healthy.

Make an announcement at your next company meeting to remind everyone to pay extra attention when cleaning their lunch dishes and to wash their personal reusable water bottles with soap at least once per week. Don’t forget to change out the kitchen sponge on a regular basis — those guys are often the dirtiest item in an office — even worse than the toilet seats!

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him use soap when he washes his hooves.

Funding Circle’s office manager places an orange on every employee’s desk sometime January. It’s a simple, but friendly reminder that we care about our employees’ health and want them to take care of themselves, too. Silicon Valley’s famous “walking meetings,” which are said to improve creative thinking also serve an important health function in the winter; allowing employees to get some exercise and fresh air. If it’s too cold to conduct business on the sidewalk, schedule your next meeting at a neighborhood café. It’s an opportunity to give your employees’ immune systems a short break from the recirculating air in the office, and a chance to support another local, small business.

4. Give sick employees time to recover

Small businesses are often admired for their lean operations and the close bonds formed among their employees. This teamwork is as important when making sales as it is when fighting off the flu. If someone isn’t feeling well, encourage them to go home until they feel better. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s also the best way to make sure the rest of your team doesn’t get sick, too!

Video conferencing tools make it easy for feverish team members to share an important presentation without also sharing their phlegm and germs.

Some business owners are reluctant to offer employees extra time off when they are sick, but those that do rarely regret it. When a sick employee stays home, they give themselves a better chance to recover faster while the rest of your staff has a greater chance of staying healthy. It may even lead to lower overall turnover if employees recognize that you truly care about their wellbeing.

If you can’t afford to offer additional PTO, focus on ways to make it easier to work remotely. Telecommuting is on the rise, with 37% of American workers reporting that they’ve done it for their current jobs. Video conferencing tools, like Google Hangouts and Zoom, make it easy for feverish team members to share an important presentation without also sharing their phlegm and germs.

Don’t expect a sick, telecommuting employee to be as productive at home as they are in the office — after all, the point is to give them some rest. But if you can formalize a work-from-home policy that sets expectations and explains how they can access their files remotely, you can help protect your other employees from the flu without compromising your business’ capacity to get things done.

5. Lead by example

Get your flu shot and keep your desk clean, but most importantly don’t come into work sick. Your business should be able to run for a day or two without your direct oversight — if not, you have some bigger problems that should be addressed as soon as you recover.

Owners and founders set the tone and culture with everything they do. If you start choosing work over your own wellbeing, your employees will feel they need to do the same. But if you care about your business, you should care about your employees. And if you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of you and your business.

Not sure if you can afford to step away from your business? See what other small business owners do when they want to take a vacation.

*Funding Circle Small Business Holiday Survey, October 2016
Results for the Funding Circle Small Business Holiday Survey were collected through an online survey conducted by Survey Monkey. A total of 1,388 U.S. small business owners completed the survey between October 25-29, 2016.

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