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How effective are workplace flu prevention campaigns?

One of the corporate health campaigns we tend to often see within various organizations is the seasonal flu awareness campaigns. Influenza is usually mild and most people recover quickly. However, this contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses can have a significant impact on overall productivity and has been known to cause more employee absenteeism worldwide than any other type of workplace illness.

Influenza epidemics occur yearly spanning around 4 months in the winter periods (November to February). Even in non-epidemic years, it causes loss of more working days per year than musculoskeletal disorders and takes more of a general practitioner’s time than back pain or any type of cardiovascular disease.

A study in the USA showed that influenza was responsible for approximately fifteen million work days lost and the annual expenditure to treat influenza with its complications averaged some three hundred million dollars, with an astonishing overall cost of 10.4 billion dollars as a result of hospitalization and outpatient visits for adults every year.

In some instances, such epidemics can have more far reaching effects; ones that go beyond the realm of workplace wellness. The relatively mild epidemic of 1989 for example, resulted in 25,000 deaths in England and Wales alone. Similar shocking figures were reported worldwide in the same year, providing the world with an eye opener that has since prompted governments and organizations to strongly encourage influenza health campaigns and place them at the top of the annual health promotion agenda.

Various studies conducted worldwide at numerous workplaces have seen similar results, showing that the flu vaccine would give about 70% protection against infection. This immunity can be expected to last through the winter.

Many do still question the benefits of the flu campaigns and the overall effectiveness of the vaccine as it is not a secret that the influenza shots are not always effective. The best way to prevent influenza is by getting vaccinated.  As influenza viruses change, a flu shot is needed every year to keep up with the circulating viruses.

Although there are far more benefits to taking the shot, annual flu vaccine design, manufacture and distribution involves a massive global undertaking but when it goes wrong the consequences can be serious. The winter 2014-2015’s vaccine was considerably less effective than usual and the flu caused 3,000 excess deaths per week in the UK alone in January 2015.

The reason this happens every few years is because viruses evolve to become crafty vaccine-avoiding machines and stronger research and effort is required to combat the new evolved strains.

Overall, there is strong research to suggest that taking the influenza vaccine does have a strong impact on reducing work place illnesses, reducing absenteeism and increasing overall productivity. The following are some points for occupational health specialists to consider and be aware off when rolling out seasonal flu campaigns within their respective organizations:

1.      Let your employee know the size of the problem within your organization: Many organizations carry out their own internal research and can provide some data as to the number of persons whom have been absent as a result of the flu. These overall statistics can be gathered and shared throughout the organization. An assessment could also be made to show the reduction in absenteeism as a result of taking the jab in comparison to not taking it at all.

2.      Seasonal flu shots should be combined with strong awareness campaigns: the awareness campaigns should normally start from the month of September with the actual flu shots offered in early to mid-October for it to present best value.

3.      People would need to be vaccinated annually as the viruses that cause flu can change every year: flu jabs have also been known to reduce the effects or prevent against more complex strands such as the H1N1 swine flu virus.

4.      The vaccination can have some initial mild side effects such as aching muscles or slightly raised temperatures. This should not be mistaken for having the flu itself!

The flu jab is recommended for those in certain ‘at risk’ groups who are at greater risk of developing complications from the flu (e.g. pregnant women; people with chronic asthma, diabetes, chronic heart disease, the over 65’s and frontline health or social care workers).

In an uncertain economic climate, it’s imperative that establishments keep their employees at work and fully productive so it’s well worth offering the flu vaccine to all staff as part of their well-being programs.

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January 21, 2019

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