Seasonal flu – employers should encourage at-risk staff to be vaccinated

Last week the BBC reported on figures from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) that showed that last winter’s flu outbreak claimed 602 lives in the UK, with more than 70% of these deaths among 15- to 64-year-olds. The HPA figures also showed that only 50% of under-65s in at-risk groups in England and Wales were immunised against flu, compared with 73% of over-65s.

David Salisbury, Director of Immunisation at the Department of Health, has said that getting people in at-risk groups to understand that they are actually at significant risk from the seasonal flu outbreak is crucial to increasing the uptake of the flu jab.

He spoke of two issues:

–          Communicating the importance of being immunised to at-risk groups before the beginning of the flu outbreak.

–          Getting ‘hand-hygiene’ messages through to everybody once the flu season has begun.

Sickness absence during the winter season impacts heavily on the UK economy as illness spreads more readily due to people spending more time indoors in heated environments. Seasonal flu usually lasts up to a week but can leave employees feeling unwell for some weeks after, continuing to affect an employee’s productivity even when they are back in the workplace. And, of course, organisations may get hit quite badly by the outbreak with a few members of staff off work at the same time, which can significantly compromise a smaller organisation’s ability to remain productive.

Whilst it’s generally accepted that health practitioners are the best people to communicate the importance of the flu jab to their patients, employers and managers also have an important role to play in encouraging their staff to have the vaccine if it is available to them.

Last year the flu-jab advertising campaign that had previously targeted those most at risk was cancelled, and some have blamed this lack of promotion on the slow uptake of the vaccine initially. The Health for Work Adviceline received a significant number of calls last year from people trying to find out where they could go to be immunised. Reminding at-risk staff of the importance of being immunised against seasonal flu should form part of employers’ focus on the health and wellbeing of their employees. Call the Adviceline (www.health4work.nhs.uk) on 0800 0 77 88 44 to find out how you can be proactive in preventing sickness absence in your organisation this winter.

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