The risks of the flu and its impact on UK workforce’s

Feb 2020

Do you ever get that dreaded feeling at work when someone in a meeting or close to you is about to sneeze or has a handkerchief stuffed up their sleeves full of germs? Being off work can be stressful not only for yourself but also for colleagues and employers.

As the flu season is a natural annual occurrence we witness frequent outbreaks of several different strains of the influenza virus which comes during dry, cold weather, which hampers the immune system and allows viruses to spread and multiply with ease.

Viruses spread faster and more widely in winter because the air is less humid and people spend more time in close contact indoors. With the recent outbreaks of cold weather, thanks to storm Ciara and storm Dennis, the temperature has dropped significantly, and people have been avoiding going outside. This means that it’s the perfect climate for flu to spread rapidly. So, as we have more cycles and instances of this type of weather to incubate the virus, are we becoming more vulnerable to advanced strains we have been seeing the media reporting on?

Pandemic Influenza

woman suffering with the flu

Pandemic influenza is different from ‘ordinary’ seasonal flu, which for most people is an unpleasant illness but runs its natural course (sometimes referred to as ‘self-limiting’) and is not life-endangering. Pandemic flu can occur when a new influenza virus emerges which is different from recently circulating strains and humans have little or no immunity.

Because of this lack of immunity the virus can:

  • infect more humans over a large geographical area;
  • spread rapidly and efficiently from person to person;
  • cause clinical illness in a proportion of those infected.

How the flu is spread

germs on hands can cause the flu to spread

Influenza is easily passed from person to person when an infected person talks, coughs or sneezes. It can also spread through hand/face contact after touching anything that may become contaminated with the virus. Illness develops a few days (average 2-3) after being infected. Everyone is susceptible, although only about a quarter of the population is expected to become ill. Another 25% may catch the infection without getting any symptoms.

Let’s talk about the Coronavirus

It has recently been reported that there is a ninth person in the UK who has tested positive for coronavirus. The new case, announced last week, was the first to be identified in London after she contracted the virus in China. Although coronavirus fears have gripped the world since it’s outbreak in China in December, and it is definitely something to be wary of, you are much more likely to contract the flu.


The NHS reports that the risk of individuals in the UK catching the coronavirus remains low. Experts have warned that the coronavirus is not nearly as deadly as the common flu and that the flu should still take priority in the medical battle. We are much more likely to contract the flu, and although it may not seem like a deadly illness, in the UK on average it kills 17,000 people a year and around 500,000 people across the globe, according to the World Health Organisation. It’s reported that since October more than 4,000 people with confirmed flu have been admitted to hospitals in England, with at least 70 deaths. This puts into perspective the threat of influenza compared to the threat from the coronavirus.

William Schaffner, a vaccine expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre, told Kaiser Health News, “When we think about the relative danger of this new coronavirus and influenza, there’s just no comparison. Coronavirus will be a blip on the horizon in comparison.”

Influenza is so easily overlooked because we have known about it for so long, and hear about it year after year. People have become complacent as a result. Shaffer adds that “Familiarity breeds indifference. Because it’s new, it’s mysterious and comes from an exotic place, the coronavirus creates anxiety.”

Unlike the coronavirus, there is a vaccine to protect against the flu. It is therefore incredibly important that everyone is vaccinated against the flu, to reduce the risk of them contracting the disease. The more people who are vaccinated the less chance there is of it spreading and becoming pandemic.

What impact does the flu have on the workplace?

Personnel Today reports that widespread use of the flu vaccination could save UK businesses up to £28.9 million in averted sick days. Research by the International Longevity Centre UK (ILCUK) found that the flu vaccination prevents up to 626,000 cases of influenza per year in England and avoids between 5,768 and 8,800 premature deaths annually.

having to take sick leave because of the flu

Ben Franklin, assistant director of research and policy at ILCUK said: “The flu continues to impose a serious burden on health services, as well as resulting in ‘productivity losses’ due to poor health and sick days.”

However, while almost 71% of those aged 65 or over received the vaccination in 2015, the UK was insufficient in vaccinating “at-risk” groups, especially younger adults who are more likely to contract the virus and whom vaccines work best. More than six million “at-risk” people did not receive the flu vaccination in 2016/17.

What Employers Should Know

An important way to reduce the spread of flu is to keep sick people away from those who are not sick. Businesses should review their absence management policies and communicate their sick-leave policies and practices to employees every year before the flu season begins.

  • Advise all employees to stay home if they are sick until at least 24 hours after their fever is gone without the use of fever-reducing medicines, or after symptoms have improved (at least 4-5 days after flu symptoms started).
  • Prepare and advise employees on policies concerning caring for sick household members or children. Flexible leave policies and alternate work schedules can help prevent the spread of flu at your workplace, allow employees to continue to work or function while limiting contact with others, help maintain continuity of operations, and help people manage their health and their family’s needs.
  • Prepare for employees to stay home from work and plan ways for essential business functions to continue. Employees may stay home because they are sick, need to care for sick household members, or because schools have been dismissed and they need to care for their children. Cross-train staff to perform essential functions so that the business can continue operating.

How Kays Medical can help

person getting a flu vaccination

Kays Medical can provide flu vaccinations to your workforce. Contact us today to arrange for your workforce to be immunised against the influenza virus, to help keep your workforce safe from the dangers of the flu and save yourself money on absenteeism and presenteeism. Our Occupational Health Practitioners can come to your site, or multiple sites, to administer vaccines to your employees.

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