Cost of the Flu

This year’s flu season has, by all reports, been particularly harsh–and it’s not just Americans’ immune systems that are being affected.

According to a new report by global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., American employers could see a total loss of more than $9.4 billion from worker absences related to the flu. To arrive at its estimate, the company merged last year’s flu data from the Centers for Disease Control, the current employment-population ratio and the average hourly wage of the American worker–and factored in that the CDC estimates adults who come down with the flu miss about four days of work.

Considering the severity of the 2017-18 flu season, that number could be even higher.

The current flu season is the worst the country has seen in almost a decade, according to the New York Times. More than 125,000 cases of the flu have been verified nationwide, and the illness has claimed more than 600 lives. Apart from this year’s strain being particularly aggressive, the flu vaccine is also less effective than usual; typically, it’s considered 40- to 60-percent successful but this year’s batch is only about 36-percent effective at preventing the flu.

With several more weeks before flu season starts to taper off, what can employers do to keep their workplaces as flu-free as possible–and protect their bottom line?

According to the CDC, there are some simple common-sense approaches like encouraging frequent hand-washing, making sanitizing materials readily available and providing hands-free trashcans. Above all, the CDC advises, employers should urge workers to stay home if they’ve come down with the flu. They should stay out of the office until at least 24 hours after their fever has broken to reduce the potential for transmitting the illness to co-workers.

Andrew Challenger, vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, says the financial-impact study illustrates that sick time not only benefits the employee but also the employer, as it prevents the further spread of the illness to the company’s workforce.

“While sick workers may think they are doing the right thing by ‘toughing it out’ and coming into work when they feel ill, they are only likely to spread their illness, potentially further interrupting optimum business operations,” he says. “Whether it is motivated by job security or a desire to continue making a contribution in an overburdened workplace, presenteeism, as it has come to be called, should be strongly discouraged by employers.”

While paid sick leave is a given at major corporations, nearly 28-million working Americans have no access to paid time off for an illness, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that the lack of a national mandate for paid sick leave during the also-virulent 2009 flu season forced 8-million Americans to go to work ill–and they infected another 7-million people.

Could this year’s taxing flu season provide added momentum for scaled-up sick-leave policies? Just like with the illness, only time will tell.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at