How should your staff and business stay healthy in the face of flu and COVID-19?


Every year, the seasonal flu has a substantial impact in the workplace, including employee absenteeism and loss to productivity. In 2020, businesses face both the impact of the seasonal flu and the simultaneous threat of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

“This year, more than ever before, it is absolutely essential that you encourage all your staff members particularly those considered at high risk of influenza related complications, to get the flu vaccine,” says Dr Ryan Noach, CEO of Discovery Health.

Setting COVID-19 aside for a moment, the seasonal influenza (flu) statistics for South Africa are frightening: A 2019 study shows that every year there are over 10 million cases of mild influenza-associated illness; 128 000 severe, but non-fatal episodes; and 11 000 deaths from flu-related complications.

Although the influenza related complications are frequently seen among those younger than 5 years,, pregnant women and those who are 65 years and older , those with chronic medical conditions, such as HIV, diabetes, heart and lung diseases, are also at high risk. In South Africa, with an estimated 13.1% of the population living with HIV, the risk of severe illness as a result of the flu is particularly high for many people.

The effects of the annual flu season on your business

Flu epidemics cause 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness worldwide every year, and 290 000 to 650 000 respiratory deaths per year, according to the World Health Organization. But millions more are affected by milder flu, which does not require medical attention – but it does cause people to stay away from work.

“Employee wellness is fundamental to driving productivity, and this is more important than ever in the context of the country’s current economic challenges. We cannot afford setbacks," adds Dr Noach.

Absent employees affect both productivity levels and staff morale, as those who are present have to deal with an increased workload to cover for colleagues who are at home due to illness.. Low productivity and morale inevitably have a detrimental effect on the bottom line of any company.

High absenteeism rates owing to the seasonal flu can, therefore, have a severe effect on your business. A recent study estimated that the flu caused 6.4 million days of absenteeism from work annually in South Africa. Occupational Care South Africa (OCSA) estimates the cost of absenteeism to the South African economy to be between R12 billion and R16 billion per year, while seasonal flu alone is thought to account for over R4 billion of this.

This absenteeism rate linked to the seasonal flu is calculated worldwide using laboratory test results, hospitalisations and doctor’s office visits, in conjunction with tracking absenteeism trends in workplaces. Often, those who have the seasonal flu may stay at home and not seek medical care r, resulting in under reporting as these cases may not be reflected in the published influenza related absenteeism data.. Absenteeism could be the single most expensive problem affecting South African businesses. As many as 15% of employees are absent on any given day during the flu season. According to the Global Hygiene Council Study done in 17 countries including South Africa, , an average person misses 4.5 days of work per year because of respiratory illnesses.,

“Respiratory illnesses and their effects place limits on the ability of employees to carry out their work and to contribute meaningfully. This year, the effects of the flu season will be compounded by the effects of COVID-19, which has already had far-reaching negative effects on local and global business and on global markets," says Dr Noach.

The flu vaccine helps employees to stay healthy and productive

The flu vaccine is still the primary means for protecting against seasonal influenza. In South Africa’s unequal and resource-limited state healthcare context, it is even more essential that everyone has access to the annual flu vaccine.

“The flu vaccine is now available in South Africa. We urge employers to impress on staff the importance of being vaccinated against this year’s flu strains. Staff can obtain their vaccine at their local pharmacy or healthcare professional", says Noach. “The vaccine is particularly relevant for those at high risk of severe illness as a result of the flu."

People at high risk are more likely to suffer from severe influenza related complications. Pneumonia is the most common serious complication of influenza.

Who is considered high risk in the case of the flu?

  • Healthcare workers
  • Pregnant women
  • Children under five years old
  • The elderly (65 years and older)
  • HIV-infected people
  • Adults with severely weakened immune systems or tuberculosis or chronic illnesses like diabetes, lung disease and heart disease.

“A popular myth about the flu vaccine is that it contains the live virus and can, therefore, give you the flu. This is simply not true. This belief may result in some people avoiding the flu vaccine as they fear being sick form the vaccine itself, add Dr Noach

Even though the flu vaccine cannot guarantee that someone won’t get the flu, it does reduce the severity of the flu if someone gets it. Consequently, having the annual flu vaccine reduces the number of days an employee is absent from work.. last The previous year’s vaccine is not effective in fighting this year’s flu strains as the flu virus strains differ due to frequent mutation(changing genetic information) of the virus each year thus requiring annual reformulations to ensure vaccine effectiveness ," adds Noach.

Preventive measures for COVID-19 and flu overlap

Something of particular importance is that the primary preventive measures in curbing the spread of COVID-19 are the same as those that prevent people from getting the seasonal flu. That’s because both are viral infections that spread through:

  • The air, after coughing or sneezing – People could catch COVID-19 if they are standing within one metre of a person who has the illness and they then breathe in particles coughed out or exhaled by the ill person.
  • Close personal contact – This includes shaking hands, and kissing, hugging or touching others.
  • Touching an object or surface with the virus on it – When an ill person coughs or exhales close to objects or surfaces such as desks, tables and telephones, others get exposed to the virus if they touch their mouth, nose, or eyes before washing their hands.

“Regular and correct handwashing will protect your employees from acquiring the flu or COVID-19, and from spreading the illness to others," says Dr Noach. “If employees come to work and they have flu, they can spread it to their co-workers, so this needs to be discouraged."

The preventive measures that protect against these illnesses are key:

  • Wash your hands correctly: Clean your hands often by washing them with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser that contains at 60%–70% alcohol. Soap and water should be used if hands are visibly dirty. Hands must be washed when dirty, and after playing, going to the bathroom, sneezing, coughing or blowing the nose, and before eating.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Avoid touching your face, especially eyes, nose and mouth, with unwashed hands.
  • Practise cough etiquette: When you cough, maintain your distance from others. Cover your mouth and nose with , a flexed elbow or a tissue. Throw away the tissue immediately and wash your hands afterwards.

Help your employees to stay healthy in the face of COVID-19 and the seasonal flu

  • Help employees to understand how to protect themselves from the seasonal flu and COVID-19.
  • Provide your employees with information on where they can get the annual vaccine.
  • Communicate the importance of the flu vaccine by means of posters, emails and company communications.
  • Get managers to get vaccinated first as an example to their staff.
  • Ensure that your communications remind employees that antibiotics do not cure viral illness like the flu or COVID-19. "Antibiotics only work on bacterial infections, so antibiotics should not be used as a means of prevention or treatment in the case of these illnesses," says Dr Noach.

Share our podcasts: Flu, antibiotics and your employees

  • Do you want to share more insight into flu and antibiotics with your employees? Also, do you want your employees to understand how antimicrobial resistance (caused by the overuse of antibiotics) can really hit home – as it did for Dr Tom Patterson? Listen to our podcast on this theme today.

Tempia S, Moyes J, Cohen AL, et al. Health and economic burden of influenza?associated illness in South Africa, 2013?2015. Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses. Volume 13(5). September 2019.

Log in

Please click here to login into Discovery Digital Id

Please click here to login into Discovery Digital Id