Thursday, August 20, 2009

Recession and Flu in the Workplace

Flu and recession make a tricky combination, especially when it comes to the workplace.

Workers are especially reluctant to be away from the workplace when the job market is weak and unemployment is around 10 percent. Workers believe, often correctly, that they are more likely to keep their jobs if they are seen hard at work. Yet the best thing for the community is for workers to stay home especially for the first week after they contract flu and to have the smallest possible physical contact with the workplace, public transportation, and other public places during that time to minimize the risk of spreading the flu virus.

In this way, a recession can make flu spread faster through the workspace than it would normally. This is a special concern this year, as the U.S. Department of Health of Human Services and Department of Homeland Security are preparing for a flu season that is expected to affect two to three times as many people as usual because of the new H1N1 strain that has been spreading across North America and worldwide this summer.

Employers can encourage employees to stay home if they might have flu, but that is not likely to help much, as a person with flu is the most contagious during the two or three days before the symptoms become obvious. And so a more important adjustment employers can make is to change cleaning practices, cleaning hand-contact surfaces — doors, rails, telephones, elevator controls — several times a day. Workers, for their part, can wash their hands frequently.

Unfortunately, flu will slow down the economy, as affected workers are unable to work or are working less productively than usual for several days or weeks. People shouldn’t worry about the flu-related slowdown in the economy being part of a long-term trend. The flu season will end after about 8 months, and it is the longer-lasting trends that will determine where the economy goes from there.