Employee Health Education May Be the "Best Medicine"

Employers should shift the focus of workplace health programs this fall from flu-immunization efforts to education and prevention.

The 2004-2005 influenza season could begin as early as this month, and with flu vaccine in significantly short supply, many employers are not able to offer flu shots to their workforce. On average each year in the United States, from 5 percent to 20 percent of the population will contract the flu. With cases of the flu likely to be on the rise during the 2004-05 influenza season due to vaccine shortage, the economic impact on businesses could be significant. The annual costs of unscheduled employee absences, due to factors including illness, can range from $60,000 to well over $1 million, depending on company size, according to the 2004 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey.

"The business community was caught off guard with the recent announcement about this year's dramatically limited vaccine supply, and could face operational challenges related to unscheduled employee absences because of illness," said AAOHN President Susan A. Randolph, MSN, RN, COHN-S. "The best way to mitigate these challenges will be for employers to now focus on educating employees about healthy behaviors that can help them avoid contracting influenza or to react appropriately should they become ill."

Occupational nurses are encouraging employers to share the following information about healthy behaviors with employees:

  • Practice good respiratory hygiene A primary way the flu spreads from person to person is via coughs and sneezes. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve, not your hands.
  • Keep your hands clean Be vigilant about washing your hands often during the day. Wash hands with antibacterial soap and warm water for at least 15 to 20 seconds. When soap isn't available, you can use alcohol based hand wipes or gel sanitizers as a substitute.
  • Eat, drink and be healthy Maintain a well-balanced diet and be sure to drink plenty of fluids, especially water. Enhance the beneficial effects of a healthy diet by increasing your Vitamin C intake.
  • Don't stress out If your stress levels are high, your body is more susceptible to illness. To combat stress, get plenty of rest and try to exercise regularly. Additionally, make an effort to step outside for some fresh air during your already scheduled daily work breaks.
  • Learn how to recognize the flu It's important to recognize the difference between the flu and other common ailments. Symptoms of the flu include a high fever; head and muscle aches; extreme fatigue; dry cough and sore throat; runny or stuffy nose and gastro-intestinal symptoms.
  • Finally, if you get the flu, stay home If you do wind up contracting the flu despite preventative measures, don't put your co-workers at risk. Stay home.
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