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Ten ways to minimize flu transmission in the workplace

Researchers from the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia recently reviewed the effectiveness of social distancing in reducing the spread of the flu in the workplace.

The flu, short for influenza, is a common viral illness. Its symptoms include respiratory and gastrointestinal complications such as a fever, muscle aches, nasal congestion, a persistent cough, chills and sweats. In addition to feeling lousy, complications from seasonal flu can lead to hospitalization and even death.

A person comes down with the flu after having been exposed to the flu virus. Typically, the virus is transported in tiny droplets in the air from an infected person as the infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks and transfers the virus to another person who inhales it. However, the virus can also be transferred to others by touching an object that has the virus on it and then transporting it to the eyes, nose, or mouth.

Flu in the Workplace

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 5-20% of the world’s population is affected by seasonal flu each year. Contacts made in the workplace represent 20–25% of all weekly contacts, and influenza transmission in the workplace represents on average 16% (range 9–33%) of all transmissions.  As a result, flu outbreaks can have a significant effect on employee absenteeism and productivity.  Yet, despite this, controlling the spread of this illness is extremely challenging.

Social Distancing

Workplace closures are both difficult and impractical for most businesses and industries, especially in essential services such as healthcare. Measures to mitigate flu transmission while keeping workplaces operating are imperative.

The underlying principle of social distancing is that increasing physical distance between people and reducing the frequency of in-person interaction will help to mitigate the spread of the flu within community settings such as schools or workplaces.

A systematic review of the literature on the effectiveness of social distancing to reduce or slow flu transmission was recently published in BMC Public Health. The researchers conducted electronic searches using MEDLINE, Embase, Scopus, Cochrane Library, PsycINFO, CINAHL, NIOSHTIC-2, and EconLit to identify studies published in English from January 1, 2000, through May 3, 2017. Fifteen studies (from North America, Asia, Europe, and Australia) met the eligibility criteria.

Despite a lack of well-designed epidemiological studies, the research team was able to conclude that social distancing measures in the general population could reduce the spread of the flu by up to 23%. Epidemiological and modeling studies focusing on the workplace indicated that workplace social distancing reduced the overall number of influenza cases as well as reducing and delaying the influenza peak. However, optimizing the effectiveness of social distancing depended upon their quick, complete, and consistent implementation.

Ten Recommendations for a Workplace Flu Mitigation Action Plan

Detecting the flu early and having a flu outbreak plan are critical in limiting the spread and impact of seasonal flu transmission in the workplace. The following are some practical, and minimally disruptive, measures that can be incorporated into an outbreak plan.

Employers should advise employees of the following:

  1. Become vaccinated against the flu each year.
  2. Stay home when sick (likely only if sufficient sick days are provided) or wear a mask to reduce transmission to co-workers and clients.
  3. When possible, telecommute or complete work from home.
  4. Wash hands frequently and avoid touching the face. Have hand sanitizer readily available.
  5. Reduce face-to-face contact by using phones, email, instant messaging, and video conferencing, even if offices are nearby.
  6. Stand further apart from others when person-to-person contact is necessary.
  7. Have orders or materials ready to minimize person-to-person contact during pick-up or delivery.
  8. Eat lunch at your desk rather than in gathering areas.
  9. Postpone non-essential meetings, training sessions, travel, or company events.
  10. Hold essential meetings or training sessions in large meeting rooms so that seating can be well spaced.

Written by Debra A. Kellen, PhD

References:

(1) Ahmed, F., Zviedrite, N., & Uzicanin, A. (2018). Effectiveness of workplace social distancing measures in reducing influenza transmission: a systematic review. BMC public health18(1), 518. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-018-5446-1
(2) Mayo Clinic. Influenza (flu) Overview.  Retrieved on May 20th, 2018 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/flu/symptoms-causes/syc-20351719
(3) World Health Organization (2017). Limiting Spread. Limiting the spread of pandemic, zoonotic, and seasonal epidemic influenza.  Retrieved on May 20th, 2018 from http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/259892/WHO-WHE-IHM-GIP-2017.5-eng.pdf;jsessionid=C06B07F77BB7B843D940EED24EAC0A2A?sequence=1

Debra Kellen PhD
Debra Kellen PhD
With undergraduate degrees in Neuroscience and Education from the University of Toronto, Debra began her career as a teacher. Nine years later, when she moved to Michigan, Debra earned a Ph.D. in Education Policy from the University of Michigan. Today, Debra organizes conferences and conducts workshops to provide training and support for educators and medical professionals on effective coaching, staff recruitment and training, and creating a culture of continuous improvement. She loves to read and enjoys the challenge of translating medical research into informative, easy-to-read articles. Debra spends her free time with her family, travelling, wandering through art fairs, and canoeing on the Huron River.
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