How to cut down on sick days during flu season

Flu season is officially here, with some 7.3 million cases diagnosed, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report issued Jan. 11. Between 69,000 and 84,000 people have already been hospitalized.

While it is difficult for the CDC to predict flu severity, the staffing firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates absences due to influenza could cost employers more than $17 billion in lost productivity this season.

To limit that cost, workplaces nationwide should start preparing for the possibility of flu-related absences and take precautions to limit infections. The CDC says the key is advising employees to receive flu vaccines.

Online resource Find CDC influenza resources for employers at

Last year’s flu season sickened nearly 49 million people, 32.5 million of whom were over the age of 25, according to the CDC’s age breakdown of flu infections for the 2017-18 season. Last season was the worst since 2009, when that year’s H1N1 strain sickened an estimated 60.8 million people, with more than 40 million of those affected over the age of 18.

Challenger predicts 20 million workers could take four eight-hour days away from work due to the flu. Using the current employment-population ratio of 60.6%, and the average hourly wage of $27.48, the cost to employers could hit $17,587,200,000 over the course of the season.

‘Sick again?!’ How to cut down absenteeism

While flu season may be in full swing, chronic absenteeism can become an all-season problem. If you have employees with chronic attendance problems, you can’t rely on company policy to make things easier. Even if you follow the rules and mete out punishment fairly, it’ll still drain your energy and divert you from more important matters.

Minimize the problem from the outset. By educating, tracking and warning people, you’ll reinforce the need for everyone to show up.

Use these preventive measures to keep absenteeism in check:

Get specific. During performance reviews, avoid vague characterizations of an employee’s attendance record. Labeling someone as “somewhat reliable” or “often absent” leaves room for interpretation.

It’s better to plug in hard data: the number of workdays since the last review along with the number of unexcused absences during that period. Express it as a percentage (“You did not show up 16% of the time”) and state your expectations in terms of percentages that are acceptable and excellent.

Document all violations. An otherwise fine employee fails to show up for work. Six hours later, you learn what happened and you’re tempted to let it slide. Don’t.

Even if the individual has a great excuse for not calling in, you should document the incident and add it to the personnel file. Explain that you treat all unexcused absences consistently—and that means writing up each of them. That way, you build a paper trail if you eventually opt for employment probation.

Explain what’s at stake. At staff meetings, help employees see the repercussions when they’re absent. Don’t nag or preach. Just walk them through the costs, from lining up temps to shoving more work onto beleaguered co-workers.

Follow up. When a worker returns from an absence, say “Glad you’re back,” but ask some nonthreatening, forward-looking questions. Examples: “What do you think will prevent this from happening in the future?” and “Can we rely on you to be here every day as things heat up?”

Flu could cost employers $17 billion this season