A workplace flu campaign takes planning, education and financial support. But it’s well worth the effort

Simply put: the flu is no fun. Its fallout includes high fever, muscle aches, extreme fatigue, even death. Between 4,000 and 8,000 Canadians (mostly seniors) die from the flu every year.

Lost productivity from the flu imposes a big burden on business. According to Statistics Canada, the weekly number of employees absent due to illness or disability has risen steadily over the past decade—431,000 (3.8%) in 1997 to 758,000 (5.4%) in 2006. Not surprisingly, illness-related absence peaks during the winter months when the flu is lurking.

Flu-related absenteeism can range from two to seven days. The fatigue, though, can last much longer.

“Employees who have had influenza are probably not working 100% even when they’re back at work,” says Dr. Ian Gemmill, past chair of the Ottawa-based Canadian Coalition for Immunization Awareness and Promotion and medical officer of health, Kingston and area.

And it’s not just about one person being ill. The flu virus can be passed to others for up to a day before an employee actually feels symptoms. “A workplace can be hit hard. Up to 30% of a workforce can be off sick at the same time,” explains Dr. Gemmill.

Fighting fit

Combined with good personal hygiene (like handwashing), the annual vaccine is the best defence against the flu, reducing the number of cases by up to 70%.

The workplace can be an ideal setting for a frontline flu strategy because it is so accessible, according to Dr. Dominique Tessier, a leading Montreal-based expert in infectious disease and national director of Travel Health Clinics for Medisys, a healthcare consulting firm that vaccinates companies large and small. “Having a flu clinic in the workplace is critical to increasing the number of people who will be vaccinated,” she says.

When and where to offer a workplace flu clinic will depend, to a large extent, on a workplace’s processes. Offering a flu clinic at a regular fall meeting may work best for sales staff on the road. In a healthcare environment, infection control staff can wander the halls with flu vaccine in hand. Larger companies might offer a clinic over several days and times to accommodate diverse schedules. The bottom line is ease. “We know that people will get the vaccine if it’s convenient, in the same way they get fast food,” says Dr. Gemmill.

Need to know

Education is key to any flu campaign. “There are many misconceptions about the flu vaccine. Probably the biggest is people believing they can get the flu or a cold from the vaccine,” says Pam Cholak, an occupational health consultant with Albertabased ECM Group, a company that provides health management services to public and private employers.

An education campaign must dispel myths and articulate not only the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness, but also its side effects. “It’s about giving people all the facts so they can make an informed decision,” says Dr. Jeffrey Kwong, scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and family physician at Toronto Western Hospital.

The message is important. Healthy adults may be motivated not to protect themselves but to protect their family. Safeguarding the ones you love is a message that will resonate, says Dr. Tessier. New research suggests the flu shot may be less effective for seniors than previously thought, underscoring the need to vaccinate healthy adults (and children) to protect “grandma.”

Education can make a real difference to a clinic’s success. Participation rates typically hover around 20% to 35%. The Hamilton division of Siemens Canada has achieved an impressive 60% participation rate. Patricia Lane, the company’s occupational health nurse, attributes this success, in part, to awareness. “Our employees are much more aware of the importance of the flu shot for their and their family’s health,” says Lane.

The dollars make sense

The cost of a workplace flu clinic depends on the number of employees taking part. Location is important too. In Ontario, the vaccine is provided free of charge, so employers only pay for the cost of administering a program. If that’s done by an external healthcare agency, the average cost is $12 per employee, according to the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care.

Where free vaccine is not provided to employers, flu clinic costs are higher. For McCain Foods (Canada), based in Florenceville, N.B., the cost is up to $25 per person. ECM Group in Calgary cites a similar figure.

Is the investment worth it? Several studies have found that flu immunization in healthy working adults results in net savings ranging from US$13.66 to $46.85 per employee vaccinated (vaccine cost included).

“While our priority is keeping employees healthy, we’ve seen significant operational benefits,” says Dr. William Lakey, medical director, occupational health programs, BC Public Service Agency. “Having more people at work during flu season maintains our services to citizens. And a reduction of sick-leave costs between one and two million dollars per year during the flu season (at least partially attributed to our program) more than covers operating costs.”

A return on investment (ROI) calculator, developed by Medisys, provides a snapshot of the financial gain. With a participation rate of 20%, a company of 1,000 employees can expect an ROI of 300% to 700% from reduced absenteeism alone, depending on the effectiveness of the vaccine (influenced by the match between the vaccine and circulating viruses) and the severity of the flu season. Not included in the calculation are worker replacement costs and other intangibles, such as presenteeism and motivation, that can increase ROI.

Companies looking to increase the ROI should focus on participation rates. When more employees take part, costs are higher but are far outweighed by the savings from reduced absenteeism.

Beyond the cost benefit is the boost it can give to employee morale and corporate image. “The province of British Columbia is transforming the BC Public Service to make it the best place to work,” says Dr. Lakey. “The flu vaccination program is a great example of the province’s commitment to the well-being of its 35,000 public service employees.”


Planning for success

Eight useful tips for setting up a workplace flu clinic:

1. Get management, unions and employees on board.

2. Decide how the clinic will be managed—by internal occupational health staff or an external healthcare agency.

3. Target an appropriate date—October is prime time.

4. Promote the clinic and distribute flu-related information. Online materials are available from provincial or territorial ministries of health, health districts/regions, local public health offices and the Canadian Coalition for Immunization Awareness and Promotion (www.immunize.cpha.ca). Plan for creative distribution: Use the company intranet, place reminders in pay stubs or run an article in the monthly newsletter. Repetition is important.

5. Select a comfortable, accessible location for your clinic that offers privacy in case employees need to remove articles of clothing or have medical questions or concerns.

6. Provide the vaccine to small groups at a time. By gathering large groups to wait their turn, an employee could catch a cold from another and blame it on the vaccine.

7. Consider incentives to boost employee participation, like a pizza lunch or an award to the team with the highest vaccination rate.

8. Hold the clinic with confidence. Companies must strongly support and promote their flu campaign to ensure its success.


Lynda Cranston is a freelance writer in Toronto

For a PDF version of this article, click here.

© Copyright 2008 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the November 2008 edition of WORKING WELL magazine.


Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Working Well.

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