Is your organization affected by the flu every year? According to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the flu cost U.S. companies billions of dollars in medical fees and lost earnings. Read on to learn more.


Elizabeth Frenzel and her team are the Ford assembly line of flu shots: They can administer about 1,800 flu shots in four hours.

Frenzel is the director of employee health and wellbeing at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and with 20,000 employees, she is no stranger to spearheading large flu shot programs. The center where Frenzel administers flu shots has roughly a 96% employee vaccination rate. Back in 2006, only about 56% of employees got their shots.

“When you run these large clinics, safety is critically important,” she says.

Problems like Frenzel’s are not unique. Every fall, HR departments send mass emails encouraging employees to get vaccinated. The flu affects workforces across the country, costing U.S. companies billions of dollars in medical fees and lost earnings, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. It is not only a cause of absenteeism but a sick employee can put their coworkers at risk. Last year the flu killed roughly 80,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Even if an employer offers a flu shot benefit, the push to get employees to sign up for the vaccine can be a two-month slough, with reminder emails going unanswered. Moreover, companies often contend with misconceptions about the shot, such as the popular fallacy that shots will make you sick, running out of the vaccine, and sometimes just plain employee laziness.

In Frenzel’s case, increasing the number of employees who got flu shots weren’t just a good idea, but it was needed to protect the lives of the cancer patients they interact with every day. The most startling fact, she says, was that healthcare workers who interact with patients daily were less likely to get vaccinated.

“So that’s how we started down the path,” she says. “Really targeting these people who had the closest patient contact.”

Frenzel credits the significant increase in employee participation in the flu shot program to several factors. They made the program mandatory — a common move in the healthcare industry — but Frenzel says their improvement also was related to flu shot education. The center made it a priority to explain to staff members exactly why they should get vaccinated. Frenzel made it more convenient, offering the vaccine at different hours of the day, so all employees could fit it into their schedule. They also made it fun, offering stickers for employees to put on their badge once they got a shot. Every year, she says, they pick a new color.

Employers outside of the medical industry are focused on improving their flu shot programs, including Edward Yost, manager of employee relations and development at the Society for Human Resource Management, who helped organize a health fair and flu shot program for 380 employees.

Yost says onsite flu shot programs are more effective than vouchers that allow employees to get vaccinated at a primary care doctor or pharmacy. The more convenient you make the program, he says, the more likely employees will use it.

“There’s no guarantee that those vouchers are going to be used,” he says. “Most people aren’t running out to a Walgreens or a CVS saying, please stab me in the arm.”

Besides the convenience, employees are more likely to sign up for a shot when they see co-workers getting vaccinated, Yost says. If a company decides to offer an onsite program, planning ahead is key. Sometimes employees will not sign up in advance for the vaccine but then decide they want to get one once the vendor arrives onsite. Yost recommends companies order extra vaccines.

“Make sure that you’re building in the expectation that there’s going to be at least a handful of folks who are more or less what you call walk-ins in that circumstance,” he says.

Incentivizing employees to get the flu shot is also important, Yost says. Some firms will offer a gym membership or discounted medical premiums if they attend regular checkups and get a biometric screening in addition to a flu shot. He recommends explaining to employees how a vaccine can help reduce the number of sick days they may use.

“Employees need to see that there’s something in it for them,” Yost says. “And quite honestly, being sick is a miserable thing to experience.”

Affiliated Physicians is one of the vendors that can come in and administer flu shots in the office. The company has provided various employers with vaccines for more than 30 years, including SourceMedia, the parent company of Employee Benefit News andEmployee Benefit Adviser. In the past 15 years, Ari Cukier, chief operating officer of the company, says there’s been an increase in the amount of smaller companies signing up for onsite vaccines. HR executives should be aware of the number of employees signing up for vaccinations when scheduling an onsite visit.

“We can’t go onsite for five shots, but 20-25 shots and up, we’ll go,” Cukier says.

Cukier agrees communication between human resources departments and employees is crucial in getting people to sign up for shots. Over the years, he’s noticed that more people tend to sign up for shots based on the severity of the previous flu season.

“Last year, as bad as it was, we have seen a higher participation this year,” he says.

Brett Perkisonassistant professor of occupational medicine at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston, says providing a good flu shot program starts from the top down. The company executives, including the CEO and HR executives, should set an example by getting and promoting the shots themselves, he says.

It’s also important to listen to employee concerns. Before implementing a program, if workers are taking issue with the shot, it’s best to hold focus groups to alleviate any worries before the shots are even being administered, he says.

Some employees may even believe misconceptions like the flu shot will make one sick or lead to long-term illnesses, he says. Others may question the effectiveness of the shot. Having open lines of communication with employees to address these concerns will ensure that more will sign up, Perkison says.

Regardless of the type of flu shot program, the most important part is preventing illness, SHRM’s Yost says. While missing work and losing money are important consequences of a flu outbreak, having long-term health issues is even more serious, he says. Plus, no one likes being sick.

“Who’s going to argue about that?” he says.

This article originally appeared in Employee Benefit News.

SOURCE: Hroncich, C (24 October 2018) “HR’s recurring headache: Convincing employees to get a flu shot” (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/news/hrs-recurring-headache-convincing-employees-to-get-a-flu-shot