Flu-driven absenteeism costs R19.1bn and 4.5m missed workdays a year in SA, here’s what employers can do



Published May 24, 2024


The 2024 flu season is expected to peak between May and August.

While the flu brings physical symptoms and health risks to everyone, especially those at higher risk, it also significantly impacts businesses. The effects include reduced productivity, employee absenteeism, increased healthcare costs and lower profitability.

Even though an effective flu vaccine has been available for years, the virus continues to cause many illnesses and deaths in South Africa and worldwide. This ongoing problem has a severe impact on businesses.

Statistics from Human Capital Review show that absenteeism could cost South Africa up to R19.144 billion annually. Flu alone accounts for 4.5 million missed workdays every year.

When employees are absent, their colleagues often have to step in and cover their duties. This can lead to overwork and fatigue among those who are still healthy. Over time, this increased workload can reduce overall productivity as tired employees may make more mistakes or become less efficient.

Businesses might try to fill gaps left by sick employees by hiring temporary workers. While this solution can help keep operations running, it comes with its own costs.

Temporary workers need training and may not be as efficient as permanent staff. Additionally, the cost of hiring and training temporary workers can add up quickly.

Businesses often share some of these medical costs, adding another layer of financial strain.

High absenteeism can lower employee morale. Those who remain at work may feel stressed and overburdened. Over time, this stress can lead to job dissatisfaction and higher turnover rates.

Businesses can encourage flu shots among employees.Picture: Fox /Pexels

Office environments are filled with “flu hot spots” like elevators, stair railings, bathroom doors, printers, kettles, and fridges. The flu virus spreads easily through droplets when an infected person sneezes or coughs and through hand contact.

In close-contact work environments, the virus can spread quickly, affecting more employees who may then infect their families and others.

This issue is even more pressing as a survey shows that 76% of local CEOs prefer employees to be back in the office full-time.

Businesses can do the following to reduce the impact of flu:

Encourage vaccination: Promote flu shots among employees.

Improve hygiene practices: Increase cleaning of common areas and provide hand sanitisers.

Allow remote work: Support remote working options, especially during flu season.

How can businesses help during flu season

Every year, the flu takes a devastating toll in South Africa. According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, between 6,000 and 11,000 people die annually due to flu-related complications.

Certain groups are at higher risk during flu season, including the elderly, pregnant women, and individuals with chronic illnesses like diabetes, lung disease, tuberculosis, and heart disease.

South African businesses already face numerous challenges such as load shedding, rising inflation, and high energy prices. Offering the flu vaccine to employees or starting a corporate flu vaccination program can have significant benefits.

Vaccinated employees can act as barriers to the flu, reducing transmission rates by up to 78%.

Getting the flu shot is the most effective way to prevent the illness. People who think they have the flu should stay home from work for at least 4-5 days after symptoms begin since they are most contagious during the first three days.

While the flu vaccine isn't 100% effective, it remains the best protection against the flu. Vaccinated individuals often experience milder symptoms, fewer doctor visits, less sick leave, and fewer flu-related hospitalisations.

Companies are encouraged to start vaccination programs, as this is the best way to protect both the business and its employees during the winter season.