Flu Outbreak Guidelines for Managers

Whether you're a manager in a military or a civilian organization, it's important for you to be prepared for the possibility that your workforce will be affected by the flu. In addition to being a serious public health problem, a flu outbreak will increase absenteeism and reduce the productivity of your workforce. In this article, you'll find information on how to manage effectively should your workforce be affected.

Planning ahead

It's important to take steps to prepare for the possibility that one or more of your employees will be affected by the flu.

  • Become familiar with your organization's sick leave policies and be sure that employees are well aware of these policies. Ask your manager or human resources (HR) contact how developments and adjustments to these policies will be communicated to you in the event of a flu outbreak.
  • Encourage all employees who want protection from flu to get vaccinated. You can learn more about why vaccination is important and who is at high risk for complications at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. Consider offering employees time off from work to get vaccinated if it's not offered at the worksite. Talk to HR if you have particular concerns around right and wrong ways to "encourage" people without overstepping your role.
  • Make a healthy workplace a priority. Provide resources and a work environment that promotes hand washing and covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue you discard or at the elbow of your shirt. Provide tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap, and alcohol-based hand cleaner. Offer education on hand washing and covering coughs and sneezes in an easy-to-understand format and in appropriate languages. Discourage hand-shaking and shared use of pens and computers.
  • Provide information to employees overseas about what to do if they become sick. Consider restricting their travel to areas that experience new outbreaks.
  • Distribute information to employees about how your organization and department plan to keep the business running smoothly if a new outbreak occurs. Explain what HR policies, workplace and leave flexibilities, and pay and benefits will be available to them. These, of course, may be modified according to the severity of the flu outbreak. Review business continuity plans with employees as well. The goal is to have procedures in place to be able to transition key business functions to others or to be able to perform them remotely.
  • Encourage your employees to prepare for the possibility that they may develop flu. Planning ahead can help them feel less anxious if an outbreak occurs.
  • Reinforce the message that employees should stay home when they are sick. Establish this policy now so that if there is a flu outbreak, employees will be sure to stay at home if they get ill or start experiencing any symptoms. People need to understand that it's not heroic to work sick when that means endangering co-workers and their families.

Reducing the spread of influenza at work

One of the best ways to reduce the spread of influenza is to keep sick people away from well people. Here are recommendations from the CDC:

  • Advise employees who have influenza-like symptoms to avoid coming to work for at least twenty-four hours after they no longer have a fever. Before returning to work, employees should be off fever-reducing medications and without signs of a fever (chills or a very warm feeling, a flushed appearance, or sweating).
  • Advise employees to be alert to signs of fever and any other signs of influenza-like illness before reporting to work each day. In addition, make sure employees notify you and stay home if they are ill.
  • Expect sick employees to be out for about three to five days. This is normal in most cases, even if antiviral medications are used.
  • Allow employees to stay home. Allow employees to stay home if they are ill, have to care for ill family members, or must watch their children if schools or childcare facilities close.
  • Encourage employees to monitor their health every day. Employees who are well but who have an ill family member at home with influenza can go to work as usual, but should watch themselves closely for symptoms of illness.
  • Advise employees who get sick at work to go home as soon as possible. If the employee cannot go home immediately, he or she should be separated from other employees and asked to go home promptly. If an employee becomes ill at work, inform your other employees of their possible exposure in the workplace to influenza-like illness but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), or other privacy laws. Employees exposed to a sick co-worker should monitor themselves for symptoms of influenza-like illness and stay home if they are sick.
  • Encourage sick employees at higher risk of complications from flu to contact their health care provider as soon as possible. Early treatment with antiviral medications is very important for people at high risk because it can prevent hospitalizations and deaths.

Anticipating absences and managing workload

It's best to plan ahead for how you'll manage workload, get the work done, and keep business operations running smoothly should you face significant absenteeism due to a flu outbreak. Here are some suggestions:

  • Provide for cross-training of employees as much as possible so there aren't tasks or responsibilities that can only be done by one person. Designate and train other employees to make sure you can continue your critical functions if someone gets sick. Focus on key tasks, and make sure that more than one person can handle them in an emergency. While having a backup is prudent in normal circumstances, a backup to the backup may be required if a flu outbreak affects many people in your area. Get people to prepare instruction sheets for tasks they perform and put them all on a shared drive and in accessible files.
  • Ensure that files, contact information, data bases and so on are readily available to other team members. Use shared drives for electronic material. Use well-organized, clearly-labeled places in work areas for hard copies.
  • Explore flexible work options. In alignment with company policy, make flexible leave plans that allow workers to stay home to care for sick family members or for children if schools dismiss students or if childcare programs close. Provide employees access to flexible work options as well, such as the option of working from home, if your business and the job allows.
  • Check that everyone's contact information is updated, including cell phone numbers.
  • Consider canceling non-essential business travel and advising employees about possible disruptions while traveling overseas.

Taking care of yourself

Here are some reminders:

  • Get the flu vaccine. The flu vaccine offers protection against both the H1N1 virus and seasonal flu viruses likely to be circulating.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Try not to touch your mouth, nose, or eyes.
  • Frequently wash your hands with soap and water. Make sure to wash for at least fifteen seconds. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is also effective when soap and running water are not available.
  • Practice healthy habits. This includes getting plenty of sleep, being physically active, managing your stress, drinking plenty of fluids, and eating healthfully.
  • Stay informed. Your organization should communicate with you about its preparedness plans if a flu outbreak affects many people in your community or workforce. Ask your manager if the information isn't reaching you.

Reliable, up-to-date information can be found at Flu.gov, the CDC, and the World Health Organization.


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