Flu outbreak is costing companies billions

It's the worst flu season in years. Workers concerned about job security are coming to the office sick and making it worse.

By Bruce Kennedy Jan 10, 2013 1:44PM

Man making faces from behind laptop, James Braund, Digital Vision, Getty ImagesThis new flu season is nothing to sneeze at. 


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is scrambling to keep up with the ever-rising numbers of people being hospitalized across the country with influenza.


In Boston, according to USA Today, hundreds of confirmed flu cases -- 10 times the total number of last year’s entire flu season -- have prompted  city officials to declare a health emergency.


The CDC estimates that, on average, the flu costs employers and businesses approximately $10.4 billion dollars in direct costs for adult hospitalization and outpatient visits. But this year it is expected to take a larger toll on health – and the economy.


The outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas says that, along with increased health care costs and widespread absenteeism, sick workers -– worried about keeping their jobs -– are still coming to the office.

In the current, shaky economic environment, "workers are reluctant to call in sick or even use vacation days," CEO John Challenger said in a press statement. "Of course, this has significant negative consequences for the workplace, where the sick worker is not only performing at a reduced capacity, but also likely to infect others.”


Challenger has some suggestions for companies trying to keep their operations humming despite the flu outbreak:


Designate a "flu czar." One employee can help operations by monitoring the number of people out sick, coordinating requests for leave and informing employees of any company measures to combat the flu outbreak.


Enforce in-office hygiene. Challenger says employees who must go to the office should be "encouraged, if not compelled" to regularly wash their hands and use anti-bacterial wipes on their work areas.  He also suggests companies maintain a 3-foot space between workers during a flu outbreak.

Allow sick employees to stay home, and have an effective leave policy. "You want to encourage workers to stay home when they are sick so they do not spread illness to co-workers," said Challenger. "You also want them to stay home to care for sick children so they are not forced to go to school and spread the virus to other kids."


Increase the number of shifts.  More shifts will reduce the number of people working in an office at any given time, and reduce potential exposure to the flu.


Allow employees to telecommute and limit in-person meetings.  Don’t gather large groups of employees in a confined space if it isn’t necessary. Also consider meeting via conference calls.


Of course, there are some companies in the healthcare field that may find this year’s severe influenza outbreak presents an opportunity due to increased demand for supplies.

"We are coming to the point where we are running out of testing supplies," Dr. Ed Ward, at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center, told Reuters. Rush has already seen nearly the twice of number of flu patients it saw all of last year. 

Companies that could benefit from sufferers' ills include pharmaceutical firms like Novartis (NVS), Sanofi (SNY), GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Merck (MRK) that produce flu vaccines, and the makers of pain relief and cough medicines, like Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and Pfizer (PFE).

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Jan 10, 2013 4:30PM
Hopefully a lot of companies will learn a lesson from this and change sick time policies. I know too many people who, if they don't work, they don't get paid - or better yet, risk losing their job outright. When you force people to come into work while they're sick, there are no winners. Unfortunately, I doubt many businesses will get the hint.
Jan 10, 2013 2:26PM
I'am glad to see your concern is with the people -  not
Jan 10, 2013 4:43PM
Our immune system need to be healed. Medicine does nothing for the immune system. Healthy bodies is the best medicine for good immune system. How is this done? Nutrients and vitamins from whole foods meaning foods that have not been tainted with preservatives and poisons. FDA  has dropped the ball on our health their idea spend billions on healthcare reform that will make the pill makers rich. How about spending billions on the idea of good healthy bodies the quality of food we eat. GOOD LUCK!  
Jan 10, 2013 3:13PM
For every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. Costing companies billions and making other companies billions equals a wash. Making Drug stores, any medical device provider, for profit hospitals, etc. billions.  Headlines can be misleading.
Jan 10, 2013 3:30PM

Regardless of the monetary value of the outbreak, this flu is nothing to fool around with.  Eight have died in seven days in Oklahoma and the meat of the season hasn't hit yet.

Jan 10, 2013 4:32PM
This doesn't take into account that it is the beginning of the year.  Many companies have leave policies that expire on 12/31 and workers have no new time accrued yet to use. It would be helpful if there was some rollover allowed into the next year (2 -3 months) whereby leave time could be used during flu season. I, like many others, often end the year with unused time, only to have something happen in January.  It's the 'use it or lose it' mentality of the company that's costing the employers the billions in the end. Don't blame the sick worker with no options. Trust me, the sick person does not want to be there, nor do they want to be behind the wheel of a car getting there. They feel they have to be at work. 
Jan 10, 2013 4:06PM
The same week we find out Americans are so unhealthy compared to other countries - here is why - even when we have the flu all we think about is profit margins.  People have no time to keep healthy
Jan 10, 2013 3:16PM
American corporate culture at it's worst. It's always the office b*** kissers that come in sick and then infect others. I hope they get the boss sick. Then good luck on their next ridicules company performance evaluation.
Jan 10, 2013 3:28PM
Costing companies billions but making the legal drug lords billions more for junk that may or may not work.  People usually die or get better soon anyway.  For those that get better, they THINK the FDA junk worked wonders!!!  The legsl drug lords must be laughing their smelly butts off.
Jan 10, 2013 4:34PM
If people would stay home when they are sick it may not spread as fast.But NO,you are not allowed to miss work for being sick so everyone in the workplace gets it.
Jan 10, 2013 4:58PM
Don't come to work sick...that's a nice idea, and no one wants to sit next to the person that's coughing and sneezing all day, but you have likely already spread the virus without knowing it in the days leading up to active symptoms.
Jan 10, 2013 4:24PM
"Costs companies billions"  How about having all companies give employees sufficient paid sick leave that they don't come to work sick?  And a government run basic health care insurance that isn't geared toward returning a profit for investors at every level of the industry?  That alone would cut health costs by probably 50 percent.  If the workers wanted anc could afford additional insurance for extreme ilnesses, they could buy that from the insurance companies, but too many are intent on taking workers for a ride on their money with private insurance and private doctors and hospitals.
Jan 10, 2013 5:07PM

The flu, right here in our own country, is costing billions, eh?  Then why are we continuing to promise the Afghani President billions and billions more?  Even after we "pull out" in 2014?


Can we please spend our money on our own citizens for a change?  Take the cost of the flu out of Karzai's pocket...

Jan 10, 2013 8:02PM
People need to stop using E.R.s as their Doctor office, talk about wasting billions, sore throats and coughing are not reasons to go to the E.R.  Doesn't help when the news media creates panic so people run to the E.R. At the first sign of illness.  Common Sense once again eludes so many.
Jan 10, 2013 4:55PM

Why would you use anti-bacterial wipes against the flu?  The flu is a virus...


the post office dont believe in their workers staying home !!!! they want us to come to work sick , touching all the mail and spreading the germs to the places and families we deliver to ... so every one spray your mail down lysol!!!!


Jan 10, 2013 6:07PM

Is that $1.4 billion in addition to health insurance (tax deductible) and sick leave (which is meant to be use, no?), or just a tally of the normal costs of doing business?


But the headline is more catchy this way!

Jan 10, 2013 5:36PM

I was fortunate to work for a large company a few years back that had realized it cost less $$ to take the time to line us up and give FREE flu shots than it did to have people answer the phone and relay messages and such for employees calling in sick. Healthy people at desks produce billable hours, Employees out sick sap overhead $$.

Unfortunately, for employees without a flu shot benefit, allergic to a vaccine component, or if the shot just didn't work, it's also that same corporate mentality that makes sick employees feel they must show up when they shouldn't be at work.

Jan 10, 2013 3:52PM
The CDA did a truly great job in picking the strains for this season's vaccine (2 out of 3). It doesn't guarantee one won't get the flu or a mutated strain, but it should reduce the chances significantly and lessen the impact of either of those strains the vaccine immunizes against.

It's not too late to get a shot if you didn't get one this season, but it can take up to a couple weeks to build full immunity, so don't delay that decision too long.

This flu season looks like it will be a bad one this time. At least those that did get vaccinated will reduce the overall illness and death tolls from what they would be without it.

Jan 10, 2013 4:26PM
flu or cold there are remedies which will help with it besides the medications from the pharmacy; I had bronchides few weeks ago and I cured it with 15 packets of Lypo spheric Vitamin C; it cost me about $15 since one packet is 1 $ ; it works on flu as well ; the protocol I did was first on empty stomach I took 2 packets in warm water with some honey every half hour for 2 hours and then i space it every hour 2 packets; i had few squares of dark chocolate as i felt a bit need of food; it worked like charm
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