As Australia heads towards winter, workplaces could be facing the perfect storm: the ongoing threat of COVID-19 converging with seasonal influenza. Not only can these illnesses wreak havoc on people’s health, but they can severely impact businesses.
We’re all aware of the wide-spread risks of Covid-19, but one study has found that employees who come to work sick cost employers two to three times as much in productivity losses than employees who stay home. And while some businesses may have shifted to operating remotely, unplanned employee absences due to illness can derail project timelines. On the positive side, the precautions most companies adopted to help stop the spread of COVID-19, such as physical distancing, hand washing and wearing masks, could lessen the impact of flu season – if they are maintained.
The raft of conflicting announcements however, including plans to scrap COVID self-isolation and an end to masks and social distancing rules cause significant confusion. Leaders argue that the pandemic is entering a new phase and people need to “learn to live with COVID” while scientists and public health officials issue warnings that ending COVID regulations could be premature at this stage in the pandemic.
What is abundantly clear – and we don’t need a politician to spell it out, is that it’s critically important for organisations to maintain their viral vigilance to keep their employees safe and their business healthy. Here are some key considerations for businesses preparing for the ‘COVID and flu’ season this winter:
Covid free surveillance testing: Forward thinking organisations have implemented regular surveillance testing, via Point of Care or at-home self-testing with rapid antigen kits, and those that recognise the importance of repeatability and secure reporting have bolstered their Covid-free plan by managing the program via the easily downloadable Gardian Self Check app and Test Tracker management software.
If monitoring the rapid spread of the virus internationally has taught us anything, it is that Australia is likely to have a surge of the BA.2 variant or emerging Deltacron. Having a robust Covid-19 testing program in place whereby staff can home-test, record and share their result with an employer prior to going into work is the only way to effectively stop the spread of the virus and maintain a Covid-free work environment.
Double down on safety: We all know about the standard protective measures, but with COVID fatigue setting in, it’s important to repeat them. Experts say colds, flu and COVID-19 are all spread by droplet transmission, and mask wearing and physical distancing work against these measures. Companies need to reinforce established safety protocols and continue to follow the cleaning and disinfecting measures outlined by State Departments of Health. Educate employees: Flu and COVID-19 have some overlapping signs and symptoms, with the key difference being the loss of smell and loss of taste have not been reported with influenza. It is also possible to be infected with both flu and COVID-19 at the same time; cases of co-infection and severe illness have been documented. Educate employees on the symptoms for both illnesses and inform them about the risks. Plan for absences: With both COVID-19 and influenza, businesses should prepare for the possibility that a portion of their workforce may be unable to work at any given time. A business continuity plan should cover how many absences the business can handle before operations are interrupted, and how to keep the business operating effectively. With recent government changes afoot, communicate the company’s sick leave policy to employees and encourage them to stay home if they are sick. Support remote work: Despite appearing to be a backward step, where possible, companies should support remote work to help stop the transmission of both COVID-19 and influenza. If the business is or has already had staff working remotely, they may have identified other benefits as well: studies have shown that when it’s done right, remote work can improve employee productivity, creativity and morale. Moreover, there are cost savings of allowing employees to work at home, including savings on rent and utilities, cleaning services and food. Be sure to protect the business from any new or increased cyber exposures as remote employees come with a new set of risks.
Plan for shutdowns and restarts: While the first lockdown took everyone by surprise resulting in unplanned shutdowns, businesses can use lessons learned to inform a response plan for possible additional shutdowns. Some preparation tips include securing any vacant/unoccupied building; preparing financially, such as tightening up cash flow; staying in close contact with major suppliers and customers and adapting to new timelines; and developing new revenue streams. Once again, companies will have to prepare for restarts as well, navigating everything from health and safety guidelines to safely restarting equipment. Encourage vaccines: While an inherently controversial topic, the risk of co-infection is yet another reason why it’s so important for people – particularly vulnerable populations – to consider flu vaccines this year. Companies can support employees in getting the flu shot by hosting on-site flu clinics for employees and their families.
While the future remains uncertain, organisations can take steps to help keep employees healthy and the business operating safely. A perfect storm may be coming but defending against it all comes down to knowledge and preparation.