Flu season: how to manage infection in your workplace

  • Health & Safety
employee sat at desk surrounded by tissues
Gavin Scarr-Hall - Director of Health & Safety at Peninsula

Gavin Scarr Hall, Director of Health and Safety

(Last updated )

It’s the time of year when boxes of Kleenex and Lemsip start flying off the shelves. And as the seasons change and temperatures dip, your staff may become more vulnerable to getting sick.

Medical professionals are saying that new COVID-19 variants have developed, hence why the government has started an early rollout of its autumn COVID and flu vaccination programmes.

So, now is the time to start thinking about how you can help reduce the spread of infection in your workplace.

Because while you can’t stop staff from getting ill, you can take steps to lower the risk. And when viruses threaten to take over your operations and leave you understaffed, it’s important to make sure you:

Provide Health & Safety information to staff

Dig out any resources you have around the common cold and flu and send them to your employees. This information will be useful in helping your staff to self-diagnose their own symptoms and learn how to manage them.

You might be thinking that resources are unnecessary when symptoms are so widely known. However, sending out information sends a strong reminder to staff who aren’t feeling well or are exhibiting symptoms to stay at home.

Otherwise, you could end up with a toxic case of “presenteeism” which we’ll dive into now…

Clamp down on presenteeism

Being able to spread the message that ‘it’s okay to be ill’ is vital.

Many employees often continue going into work while they’re still unwell and very infectious out of fear that not turning up will have a negative impact on their careers.

However, this “presenteeism” (i.e. the pressure to be present at work) can actually be very damaging for you and your employee. An employee who continues working while they’re ill is likely to struggle to perform, prolong their illness, and spread their illness to others around them. Meaning, you could end up having more people off work sick (or turning up sick).

That’s why it’s important to encourage staff to take time off work to recover. If they feel well enough to work, it may be worth allowing them to work from home temporarily if possible.

Encourage staff to take up COVID and flu vaccines

The best defence your staff can get in flu season is a vaccination.

The NHS rolls out a free flu vaccination programme every year to help protect vulnerable people who may be more at risk of getting seriously ill with the flu. (You can read more about eligibility on the NHS website).

Before we get into the thick of flu season, it’s a good idea to encourage staff to book a vaccination. This is especially important for vulnerable staff who are eligible for both flu and COVID-19 booster shots.

Your organisation may offer flu vaccinations internally. If so, share this information across your work comms and make sure your staff know how to sign up for a vaccination at work.

And if you don’t offer vaccinations, it’s good to be flexible around allowing staff to attend vaccination appointments. You may need to remind employees of your company rules around taking time off for a vaccination appointment.

You can also send out leaflets and various resources, so your staff have as much information as they need about getting a vaccination. However, it is important to remember that while you can guide and recommend staff getting a vaccination, you mustn’t try to enforce it against their will.

However, if you work in an industry where vaccinations may be required (like in a health care setting), you may have the right to take action if your employee refuses to get vaccinated.

Depending on the circumstances, it may be illegal for you to continue to employ someone who isn’t vaccinated. You may have to follow a process to dismiss them due to a ‘statutory ban’ or ‘some other substantial reason’ (SOSR) as they cannot legally work there unless they are vaccinated.

Ventilate your workplace

This is a pretty obvious one, but still important. As a general rule, you should make sure your workplace is well-ventilated – especially in enclosed areas.

If your staff work in a poorly-ventilated enclosed space, it’s far more likely that infectious diseases will spread. Making sure your workplace has access to fresh air will help to reduce the risk of transmission.

If you can’t open windows, having a good aircon system is a must.

Help staff maintain a clean working environment

Maintaining good hygiene practices in work will also help to reduce the risk of viruses spreading. It’s important to remind staff to be responsible for their own hygiene.

This means washing hands, covering mouths when sneezing or coughing, and keeping surfaces clean.

You could put signs up around the workplace to remind staff to practice good hygiene. You may also want to leave hand sanitisers on desks or provide a communal sanitiser for staff to use.

You can also help maintain hygiene standards by offering protective equipment.

If your staff work in customer-facing roles – like retail and hospitality, health care settings, or on reception desks – it’s recommended that you set up protective screens. While this isn’t mandatory, it can help to protect staff who come into contact with so many people during flu season and prevent the spread of infection.

Review your sickness and absence policy

If you don’t currently have a sickness and absence policy, it’s a good idea to set one up. Whether you have a standalone policy for sickness or one policy outlining how you deal with all types of absences, it’s important to have it in writing somewhere.

Because while you may be able to take steps to help prevent sickness at work, you should be prepared in the event that multiple staff end up on sick leave.

Having a policy gives you and your staff a process to follow if they think they might not be well enough to work.

In your policy, you may want to include:

  • How to report a sickness absence.
  • Rules around your absence trigger point system (if you use one).
  • How often you’ll be in touch while your employee is off work.
  • How you support employees who are returning to work after a sickness absence (will you hold return to work interviews?)
  • Your rules around company sick pay (i.e. do you offer statutory sick pay or enhanced?)

If you’re allowing staff to work from home as well, you may need to consider a flexible working policy if you don’t already have one.

You can find more information about how to manage staff sickness absences here. Alternatively, if you have a question about setting up a sickness and absence policy or a query about an employee being off work, tap below to book a free call with a Health & Safety expert today.

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