Last reviewed 18 November 2021

After 18 months of isolation, colds and flu are starting to return. As we move into Winter, Laura King considers how workplaces can help staff stay well.

Already many of us will have suffered from a cold or respiratory illness this year — and, if not, it is likely we know someone who has. Some have dubbed this year’s array of sniffles and sneezes “super colds” claiming that the symptoms have hit much harder — and although the idea that a particularly nasty cold virus is circulating has been disputed, experts have warned that respiratory illnesses are likely to be more prevalent this winter.

Respiratory illnesses are caused by numerous types of viruses, including rhinoviruses, non-Covid coronaviruses, and influenza (flu). Normally, we are exposed to these viruses in small amounts and this acts to “educate” our immune systems about what to prepare for. However, after 18 months of limited contact with others, our immune systems are not “up to date” explaining why we are more prone to infection, and why those infections are more likely to be worse than usual.

On top of the impact of Covid-19 measures, there are also national factors that experts have warned are likely to make it even more challenging to cope with winter illnesses this year. For example, the wider impact of the pandemic on illnesses such as long Covid and the continued disruption to NHS services will mean that more people are vulnerable to illness at a time when healthcare services are more stretched than ever.

How to help staff avoid seasonal infections

The good news is that respiratory illnesses such as colds are transmitted in the same way as Covid-19 meaning that good practice already in place for the prevention of Covid-19 infections will also serve to prevent other illnesses.

However, with seasonal sickness on the rise, now is a good time to make sure that Covid-19 policies are working well, and that the organisation is doing what it can to keep staff well and healthy. Some particular areas to focus on are outlined below.

Encouraging uptake of flu vaccines

Due to lowered immunity within the population, and the particularly serious consequences of having both flu and Covid-19, the Government is particularly concerned about the impact of seasonal flu this year.

These concerns were not helped following results of a survey conducted by the Cabinet Office in September 2021 which showed worryingly low public awareness of flu. For instance, nearly one third (32%) of the 3000 respondents were unaware that flu and Covid-19 can circulate at the same time and over a quarter (26%) did not know that flu can be fatal.

Covid-19 vaccines do not protect from illnesses such as flu, and so the NHS has expanded its free flu vaccine programme for winter 2021/22 and the government is encouraging all eligible individuals to take the additional jab when offered. The flu vaccine will be offered on top of Covid-19 booster jabs to those considered most at need.

Some organisations are offering flu vaccinations for staff through their occupational health teams, but where this is not an option, organisations could do the following to help promote the vaccine:

Promoting Covid-19 messaging

Many of the measures that protect against Covid-19 also protect against seasonal colds and flu, as both spread through infectious airborne particles. Businesses should therefore work to reinforce messaging, particularly around “hands, face, and space”.

Furthermore, now that a degree of “normality” has resumed, an audit of any remaining Covid-19 measures in place would be appropriate to identify which are being used, what is working effectively and whether what is being implemented is still adequate.

Reducing presenteeism

Before Covid-19, presenteeism (or showing up to work even when ill) was a regular occurrence in many workplaces. However, this year, staff turning up to work visibly unwell with a cold could cause anxiety for others who might not feel that the symptoms of Covid-19 are absent. The Government’s Covid-19 Response: Autumn and Winter Plan 2021 advises people to “stay at home when unwell” to avoid catching both Covid-19 and other illnesses such as flu.

There will be a multitude of reasons why people come into work even when unwell, including sick leave policies, organisational culture and availability of cover. To reduce these pressures on staff, organisations should review factors that might encourage presenteeism and consider how best to address them.

This review should also be carried out for offices adopting hybrid working policies. Although hybrid working undoubtedly offers more flexibility, even remote presenteeism can have ill consequences for efficiency as well as longer-term health.

To help staff know what to do, there should also be clear policies and procedures on what to do if feeling ill. This should include policies for what to do when sick when working within a hybrid model.

Building infrastructure

Building infrastructure — and particularly ventilation — has an incredibly important role to play in keeping building occupants safe. Good ventilation is a particularly critical tool as it does not rely on behavioural change in staff. Some points to consider include:

  • ensuring any system that is in place is well-maintained

  • personalising metrics — for example, ensuring adequate air change for each person

  • using CO2 as a proxy for how well the system is performing.

Keeping offices clean and supplies well-stocked

One way to encourage good behaviours in staff is to lead by example. Cleaning schedules will have been revamped during the last 18 months, and a risk assessment should have been drawn up to identify the necessary actions. However, now is a very good time to review cleaning operations, checking that any necessary actions are taking place and that there are no barriers to them working effectively.

Similarly, ensure that office supplies — such as those for hand sanitiser — are well-stocked. Also communicate with staff and let them know how to report when supplies are running low, and what protocols to follow to keep the office clean, for example sanitising shared facilities after use.

Health and wellbeing messaging

There are some things that everyone can do to help boost their immunity and promote good health, for example having a good work-life balance, exercising, eating a healthier diet and ensuring good sleep. Employers can have a role in encouraging good behaviours, for example by:

Summary

We are already seeing a surge in seasonal respiratory illnesses, and it is likely that many people will be hit much harder than usual due to lowered immunity. Employers can take a number of steps to help staff stay well this winter, including:

  • educating staff about Covid-19 and other serious illnesses such as the flu. Both will be circulating over the coming months, and so extra precautions need to be taken to stay well — for example, by taking both the booster Covid-19 and flu vaccine if offered

  • promoting “hands, face, space” messaging and auditing Covid-19 measures

  • having clear policies on what to do when feeling unwell

  • reviewing cleaning schedules and processes

  • promoting any employee wellbeing programme.