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Flu Jabs in the Workplace: Everything You Need to Know

5 December 2019

Flu season — which runs from approximately September to March every year in the UK — refers to the months characterised by rising tissue sales, in which the population becomes most prone to falling ill.

The spread of flu through a work environment is inevitable, as are the costly sick-days of those affected.

Flu-related absences have a knock-on effect on the productivity of a business. Even in an otherwise healthy individual, flu typically takes between one and two weeks to recover from fully. This can cost a business as much as £875 to £1,751 per employee, according to private health insurers Benenden Health.

It is therefore in the interests of employers to follow practices that keep missed days to a minimum. Knowing the rights of employees is essential for employers when devising appropriate flu-related policies — particularly with regard to the provision of flu jabs to the workforce.

Are employers legally obliged to provide flu jabs?

Flu jabs in the workplace have become such a commonplace perk within the UK’s corporate culture that they might be perceived as mandatory. However, there is no legal requirement for most UK employers to offer flu jabs in the workplace, with one notable exception:

  • The Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) holds employers responsible for offering flu jabs at the start of flu season to all health and social care staff whose roles involve direct care responsibilities.

Employers are also not required to grant time off work for a flu-jab appointment, even if employees are entitled to a free flu jab through the NHS. It is therefore at the employer’s discretion whether work time missed in relation to any flu-jab appointment is paid or unpaid.

With so many employers taking holistic measures to improve their employees’ health — including the provision of flu jabs to staff — the official guidelines sit at odds with the UK’s general corporate stance on flu. Employers planning to exercise their right to deny staff paid time off for NHS-funded flu jab appointments should consider making staff aware of this legislation at the start of flu season, to avoid an unwelcome surprise.

Having well-defined policies in place around healthcare can empower both employees and employers to navigate any flu-related issues with confidence. Again, these policies should be communicated to the entire workforce at the start of flu season. This should help to prevent any procedural confusion around flu (including misapprehensions from staff about their entitlement to flu jabs), as well as stemming the transmission of the illness itself.

Preventing flu in the workplace

The numbers of people visiting healthcare services for flu across the country this flu season is reassuringly rated as “below baseline,” i.e. the lowest level of intensity, according to the latest report from Public Health England. Nevertheless, it is important for employers to be aware of policies they could instate to reduce contagion amongst staff.

Most businesses aim primarily to reduce flu-related absences, defining the effectiveness of their approach to flu by the number of days missed over the course of the season. Policies relating to flu usually therefore focus on minimising the spread of infection by preventing workplace-based transmission in as many ways as possible.

A simple policy may provide information on the best personal hygiene measures you can take to prevent the spread of flu, to be circulated throughout the workforce at the start of the season. The workplace may be fitted with devices such as no-touch bins and hand sanitiser dispensers, helping to reduce the risk of contagion. Flexible working policies allowing those affected by the flu to work remotely will prevent them passing the virus on to others, and should also be considered. As a further preventative measure, many businesses also opt to fund and/or arrange flu jabs for staff.

The benefits of offering flu jabs to staff

Flu jabs are preventative vaccines available to the entire working population, and freely provided to certain population groups by the NHS. It is not uncommon for businesses to pay for and/or arrange flu jabs for personnel, in part because of the great extent to which they can reduce absences, thereby safeguarding business productivity. 

Based on data from the 2017/18 flu season, the International Longevity Centre UK (ILCUK) found that flu jabs prevent up to 626,000 cases of flu per year. They could save the UK economy up to £28.9 million in sick day costs (when judged against the average national employment rate and daily wage).

Many businesses offer flu jabs to staff as part of a broader suite of health benefits, including free eye tests and ‘wellness checks’. As well as serving to foster corporate well-being, these perks are also seen to increase the attractiveness of a company to prospective applicants, and increase employee retention. For organisations wishing to demonstrate their commitment to employee welfare, offering flu jabs is an effective means of visibly acting to improve people’s health during flu season.

Who is entitled to free flu jabs?

Flu jabs are offered for free by the National Health Service (NHS) to certain groups each year, as specified by the National Flu Immunisation Programme. The population groups that may contain professionals and who are eligible for a free flu jab in 2019/20 are: 

  • Pregnant women;
  • People aged 65+;
  • People aged between six months and 65 years in clinical risk groups, i.e. affected by a chronic health condition;
  • Carers;
  • People in close contact with immunocompromised individuals.

Entitlement to a free flu jab is determined by a person having an elevated level of day-to-day exposure to potential infection, and/or a heightened likelihood of developing additional health conditions as a result of flu. These additional ramifications may take various forms, including pregnancy complications or pneumonia.

Flu jabs are for everyone

Everybody can ask their GP for a flu jab. While people who are not in the above categories are not entitled to a free flu jab, a significant proportion accept the flu jab provided by their workplace, or opt to pay for one every year. Company-provided flu jabs may be carried out in the workplace, or staff may be given specialised vouchers and/or referred to a participating pharmacy.

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