Winter is almost here. In the northern hemisphere’s temperate zones, the days are getting shorter and the evenings cooler. This also means the flu season is just around the corner. Many people group influenza and colds together, and refer to the “cold and flu season” as the time of the year when we expect to come down with a “bug” and consider it “normal”.

This, however, is a dangerous misunderstanding. The flu and the common cold are caused by different viruses, and although some symptoms are similar, the flu is far more serious. Influenza causes around 3-5 million severe cases and about 250,000-500,000 global deaths each year. In the US alone, in recent years, flu-associated deaths have range from a low of 12,000 to a high of 56,000 annually.

The recent flu seasons in Hong Kong, Australia, and India were described by public health experts as the worst seen in the recent years. Hong Kong scientists have suggested this is possibly due to mutation of the dominant strain, influenza A virus subtype H3N2, and a weaker winter flu season that allowed a smaller number of people than usual to develop natural immunity. In Australia, experts have called for the elderly to be given newer vaccines, and for a general increase in vaccination coverage. In India, over 1,300 have died because of the flu, prompting discussions of a national vaccination policy.

But viruses such as influenza don’t recognize international boundaries, and flu outbreaks can easily spread between countries in our era of global travel and tourism. While the timing, severity and lengths of flu seasons vary from year to year, some things are certain: outbreaks happen, people become gravely ill – and businesses often also suffer.

Flu outbreaks can mean reduced workforces, lost sales opportunities, customer service issues, backlogged tasks or all the above. In the UK, sick leave costs employers a total of £29 billion annually. In Australia this year, the flu epidemic was estimated to have cost $47.8 million in lost productivity in the month of August alone. In the US, meanwhile, 65% of the estimated annual economic burden, equivalent to $5.8 billion, resulted directly from influenza. Considering that the flu season is something that happens every year, these economic losses are unacceptable. Moreover, there are measures that can be taken to keep workforces productive during an outbreak.

1. Reduce the number of face-to-face meetings

Imagine what would happen, in the workplace, if an employee with the flu sat in on a meeting in a confined room. Meetings should not be eliminated, but employers need to find alternative ways for workers to connect – for example, via video linkup or teleconference.

2. Minimize travel

Research has suggested that some respiratory viruses are more than 100 times more likely to be transmitted inside an airplane, where air is circulated in a confined space. Consider connecting with colleagues through online video tools, rather than through in-person meetings that require air travel.

3. Cultivate a multi-skilled workforce

Cross-training staff members is a good way of ensuring operations run smoothly in the absence of key employees. If more members of the team know and understand the various projects their colleagues are working on, it’s less likely the absence of one employee will interfere with workplace productivity.

4. Have ‘work from home’ days

Employees should have the option to work from home if they are sick. Having work from home days will ensure employees do not spread the flu virus (or any other illness) at work, and will allow them increased rest time, without the stress of commuting.

In addition, besides cultivating good health habits – such as covering your cough, washing your hands and exercising regularly to boost your immune system – the single best way to prevent the spread of flu is to…

5. Get the flu vaccine

The World Health Organization, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and public health bodies across the world recommend getting the flu vaccine annually. This measure will not only prevent individuals from contracting the flu, but will help protect their colleagues and families from the virus.

If last year’s active flu season and this year’s severe season in the southern hemisphere are any indication of what’s to come in the northern hemisphere, it’s important to get vaccinated as soon as possible against influenza.

Click here for more information on flu and the flu vaccine.