Flu season has already begun, and Public Health anticipates more illness and hospitalizations due to the loosening of COVID measures that kept last year’s flu numbers extremely low.
For employers, it’s critical to get a handle on this now, says Janet Carr, WSPS Workplace Mental Health Consultant, before the spread of flu takes a toll on employee health, absenteeism, productivity, and morale.
Workplace COVID-19 control measures will go a long way towards protecting employees, says Carr, but the best prevention tool is a flu shot, or more formally known as an influenza vaccination.
Flu vaccinations are free in Ontario and available starting this month, making this a good time to adopt or refresh a policy that encourages influenza vaccinations, combats misinformation, and more.
Employers have a responsibility to maintain a safe environment for their employees, but employees also have a role to play in safeguarding their health and the health of higher risk individuals around them. Janet offers eight suggestions on how to manage this.
Set the tone. Talk about your concern for employee health and well-being, says Janet. Acknowledge that some people may be experiencing vaccine fatigue but explain why vaccinations are critical — look how effective they have been with COVID-19. “Encourage managers to act as role models by getting vaccinated themselves and communicating that fact,” says Carr.
Provide accurate information from reliable public health sources. Address how serious the flu is, who’s at greatest risk, how it spreads, and how safe and effective the vaccine is. For reliable sources of information, see suggestion eight, below.
Address objections, concerns and misinformation with facts. For example:
Flu is not that serious. “Influenza is not a benign illness,” says Carr. “It can lay people low for up to 10 days and there can be serious complications. Every year, over 12,000 people in Canada on average are hospitalized with flu, and approximately 3,500 die.”
Flu vaccines are not 100% effective. True, but your risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and death will be significantly reduced if you have the vaccine.
Can I get flu and COVID at the same time? Yes. “It would be a double whammy,” says Carr, “resulting in more serious risks. That’s why both a flu vaccination and a COVID vaccination are imperative.”
The flu shot can give you the flu. No, it’s not possible to develop the flu from getting the shot, says Janet. There may be temporary side effects, such as soreness at the injection site, tiredness or slight fever, but that’s just your body’s immune system gearing up to fight the disease. “It’s a good sign,” says Carr. “The flu shot is safe for anyone six months of age or older who does not have a contraindication to the vaccine.”
Is it safe to get both a COVID vaccine and flu vaccine at the same time? Yes, says Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization. Some healthcare providers might still recommend administering the vaccines at different times.
Outline what controls you have in place to prevent the spread of COVID and the flu, such as physical distancing, washing your hands regularly, disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, improving indoor ventilation, masks, barriers, screening, and more.
Make it easy for employees to be vaccinated. Provide time off to see a healthcare provider, list nearby clinics or pharmacies where the vaccine is available, or hold an onsite vaccination clinic. Encourage early vaccination as it can take up to two weeks for the vaccine to take effect. “Flu season typically runs from late fall to early spring,” says Carr. “The sooner people get vaccinated, the sooner they begin to build immunity.”
Advise employees to stay home if they are sick, and to follow protocols if screening shows illness. COVID-19 and the flu can have similar symptoms and it may be hard to tell the difference based on symptoms alone. If you think you have COVID-19, get tested. In Ontario, if you are concerned about your health, you can call Telehealth Ontario at 1-866-797-0000 and talk to a registered nurse 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Set expectations. For example, do you want everyone in the workplace to get the flu shot? How will you track this while ensuring employees’ personal information remains private and confidential? How will you respond to employees who refuse to get vaccinated?
Direct employees to reliable sources of information. Here are five useful resources:
The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date. In her role with Workplace Safety & Prevention Services, Denise Lam, CHRL, focuses on helping small businesses. She can be reached at [email protected]