The Impact of Flu on Workplace Productivity: Insights from Staples Sixth Annual Flu Survey

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Over half of office workers say that having the flu virus is worse than being without Internet or email, illustrating the impact workplace illness has on productivity. With output and efficiency at risk, it is clear that companies need an effective way of tackling and minimizing the risk of spreading the flu virus at work.

Interviewing 1500 US office workers, the Staples sixth annual Flu Survey looked at workers’ knowledge of the flu, cleanliness and hygiene in the office, attitudes and habits towards flu, and the impact it had on businesses. The survey covered the views of senior decision makers as well as a variety of office workers.

The results reveal that even though workers have a sound understanding of how to prevent the spread of germs, they are often complacent when it comes to practicing those measures themselves. Dr. Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology and environmental sciences at the University of Arizona explains, “The flu wreaks havoc on U.S. employees every year, but simple, consistent approaches to cleaning, sanitizing, and limiting exposure make a huge difference.”

Key Findings

Business impact

A healthy workforce can lead to higher productivity, higher employee morale, and better business continuity. Over a fifth of office workers believe that workplace illness has the greatest potential impact on a business – almost as damaging as a natural disaster. When businesses ignore simple hygiene procedures and fail to encourage sick employees to stay at home, they not only put the health of employees at risk, but ultimately the health of the business.

Practice what you preach

Having employees who look out for each other is key to a positive work environment, so it’s reassuring that almost nine out of ten of respondents encourage their co-workers to go home if they come to work sick. But while workers seem to look after their colleagues, they don’t take the same approach themselves, with more than half of those polled admitting to going into the office with the flu.

Upcoming deadlines, pressure from colleagues and not wanting to use sick days are some reasons people choose to go to work when they have the flu virus. With more than a third of business decision makers believing it shows extra initiative if their employee comes to work when sick, there is concern that the effects of an unhealthy workforce are not being taken seriously.

Lost productivity=lost revenue

Flu can affect businesses in a number of ways, including: less productivity, lower staff morale, and poor workflow. Over half of survey respondents believe that productivity is affected more negatively by the flu than being without email or Internet at the office.

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The monetary impact is also serious, with two thirds of U.S. businesses admitting that their company loses more than $100,000 per year due to workplace related illnesses. By taking simple measures, this monetary impact can be significantly reduced.

Knowledge doesn’t mean action

The survey revealed that office workers have a good understanding of when the flu season begins and when it peaks. They are also highly aware of when they are contagious – almost half knew that the virus could be passed one day before symptoms develop and five to seven days after getting sick. However, knowing this does not stop workers from going into the office when contagious. The graph below shows how many days people typically stay out of the office when they have the flu.

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More than 80 percent of respondents spend three days or less out of the office when they have the flu, despite the fact that they may pass their illness onto co-workers. Education is not an issue here, as workers seem to understand the dangers of going to work with the flu – four fifths are worried they may catch something when their co-workers come into work sick. Instead, in order to reduce the risk of flu spreading in the office, employee actions based on company culture need to transform.

Why employees come into work sick

Pressure from employers (whether perceived or genuine) is a huge driver behind employees coming into work when sick. The two main reasons why employees have gone into the office when they had the flu are that they “felt there was too much going on at work” and there was “pressure to be at work/tough it out”.

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Pressure seems to come from senior decision makers, as almost a quarter of respondents feel that their boss expects them to come to work if they have the flu. Senior decision makers are not setting a good example, as they are more likely to believe that coming into work shows they are taking extra initiative (39% compared to 28% of office workers). Without senior employees discouraging people from coming into work with the flu or leading by example, it is understandable that employees feel pressured to come to work when sick.

Recommendations

Conclusion

The survey results show that the flu virus has the potential to be detrimental to business productivity and performance. While employees are well aware of the dangers of the flu virus they often fail to act appropriately to reduce the risk to their fellow colleagues. Businesses need to embrace measures that shift the focus from being present at work when sick to ensuring overall business productivity.

About the survey

The survey was conducted for Staples by Redshift Research among 1500 U.S. Office workers. All were working full-time and spend at least 50 percent of their time working in an office environment. 704 were managers and the remaining 796 were general office workers. Results of any sample are subject to sampling variation.

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