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The Economic Effect of Influenza on Businesses

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the 2012-2013 U.S. flu season is off to an early start—the earliest start in almost 10 years.

Employers should take heed; an early flu season could do more than make stomachs turn. The productivity lost by absent employees presents potential economic effects on businesses. According to a Walgreens study from September 2011, influenza was responsible for 100 million lost workdays during the 2010-2011 flu season. That’s $7 billion in lost wages; two-thirds of the missed workdays were employer-paid sick time. The flu sliced more than $10 billion off company productivity.

In fact, many sources list influenza as one of the leading causes of employee absences. Some estimates say that 10 percent to 12 percent of all employee absences are due to employees contracting the flu virus.Each infected employee might miss up to six days of work and need up to two weeks to make a full recovery.

Also consider costs related to lowered productivity when ill employees are at work, slowed projects, or wages and training needed for temporary workers.

Studies have documented that work practices in general are conducive to influenza's spread. Once the flu begins sweeping through a workplace, controlling it becomes difficult.

Most experts recommend that people stay home when they have a fever because this is when they are most contagious. The Walgreens survey noted that 80 percent of workers showed up on the job despite having flu symptoms. Employees are reluctant to take time off in today’s poor employment market and would prefer to report to work in order to keep up with deadlines and demands. Sick employees, however, are likely not working at an optimum level and can expose themselves and others not only to germs, but also to injury.

Many employees miss work to care for ill family members, too. The more children get sick, the greater the likelihood that employees will miss work or unknowingly become a carrier of the virus, spreading it at the workplace.

The end result is that seasonal influenza is a costly disease to patients, employers and society in terms of direct and indirect medical costs and lost productivity.

Minimize the Effects of Flu in the Workplace

To minimize the effects of the flu on businesses, employers frequently offer onsite flu vaccinations at no or low cost to employees. This option can work well if the employer has an onsite health clinic or occupational health nurse. If a business doesn’t have a clinic, pharmacies and community vaccinators can be contracted to provide seasonal flu vaccination services. If this is not practical, the organization can make sure employees know where they and their family can get vaccinated in the community. Partner with a pharmacy or provider to get employees vaccinated.

The CDC and other health care organizations recommend that employers encourage employees to seek vaccination against both seasonal and pandemic influenza; offer influenza vaccination at their worksite if possible or consider allowing employees time off from work to seek vaccination; and negotiate with insurers for coverage of the vaccination.

Workplace education programs can provide information and allay employees’ concerns about influenza vaccination. A recent study in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine showed that vaccination rates among insured employees and dependents increased significantly after work-based campaigns through their employers. More than 90 percent of vaccinated employees received their vaccine at employer-sponsored events. Those that got their vaccinations at work were more likely to have family members vaccinated, too. The main reasons for receiving the vaccine at work were economic rather than health-related. Of those immunized at work, 84 percent said they took part because it was free, 80 percent because it was convenient, and 82 percent to avoid absenteeism.

One of the many benefits of a worksite flu program to the employer is the overall cost savings. A study of 849 workers from 18 to 64 years old, conducted by the Veterans Affairs Center of Minneapolis, found that immunizing against the flu reduced the number of respiratory illnesses, days lost from work, and visits to a doctor for an estimated net savings of $47 per person, almost twice what the average workplace vaccination costs.

Determining return on investment helps create a sound business case for a worksite flu program. Some objectives to measure include: rates of absenteeism, reduced productivity, direct health savings and employee engagement. Protecting the health and safety of employees, as well as safeguarding the company’s bottom line, offer ample reason to invest in a worksite program.

The flu is a serious disease that can lead to hospitalization and sometimes even death. Anyone can get sick from the flu. For more information about influenza and protection against the flu visit the Society for Human Resource Management’s Flu Resource page or

Patricia Curran, RN, is a Washington, D.C.-based principal in Buck’s National Clinical Practice.

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