A Small Business Guide to Surviving Flu Season

A little preparation can keep a flu outbreak from devastating your small business.
Your small business employees interact with customers face-to-face, so strongly encourage all staff to receive flu shots and make sure personal hygiene is a priority. (Photo: HBRH/Shutterstock)

The flu is hitting hard this year and doesn’t show signs of letting up anytime soon. In a recent press briefing, Center for Disease Control (CDC) acting director Anne Schuchat said the virus is reaching levels similar to the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic of 2009 — and it hasn’t even reached its seasonal peak.

“In the past five seasons, influenza-like Illness has been elevated for between 11 and 20 weeks, and we’re only at week 11 now, so we could potentially see several more weeks of activity,” she said.


According to the CDC, flu-like illnesses have been elevated for between 11 and 20 weeks in the past five seasons. (Photo: CDC)

The rampage is also doing a number on the business community. Andrew Challenger, vice president of global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. said the cost of lost productivity to employers from the flu could top $21 billion this year.

NCR Silver asked Challenger to share the impact of a flu outbreak on a small business and strategies for keeping you, your employees and your customers healthy.

Small businesses vs. the flu

Restaurants, retailers and other industries that primarily work with customers in person are at the greatest risk of being affected by the flu virus, said Challenger.

“There’s so many people in and out, potentially carrying and transmitting the flu as they shop,” he said.

Unlike large organizations, which have more employees and can usually muddle through a tough flu season, small businesses are much more likely to see it impact their bottom line.

“For large companies, the flu ends up getting lost in the noise of productivity numbers. You don’t really see it show up in large macroeconomic data,” Challenger explained. “But for any individual small business, the flu can really cause serious losses in productivity that the company will notice.”

Related: Paid Sick Leave From the Business Owner’s Perspective

Be proactive


Host an on-site vaccination day at your workplace to promote health and bring customers into your store. (Photo: TaTae THAILAND/Shutterstock)

As a small business owner, it’s critical that you take proactive steps toward fighting the flu in your workplace, said Challenger. Even now, because the flu hasn’t yet peaked, businesses can still take action to minimize the spread of germs.

Strongly encourage all staff to get a flu shot. Depending on your budget, you could even host an on-site vaccination day for the community, or cover the cost of employee inoculations.

You should also stock up on soap, tissues and hand sanitizer. Maybe add a “decontamination station” near the door that’s easily accessible for both shoppers and staff.

Talk your team

Hand sanitizer is great, said Challenger, “but you also have to communicate to your employees that they should be washing their hands and using hand sanitizer every time they have an interaction with a customer — who could be a potential carrier of the flu.”

Beyond prepping workers to be extra mindful about personal hygiene during flu season, employers should make it clear to their staff that if they are sick, they should stay home.

“You really want to proactively communicate to employees that they shouldn’t come in at all when they’re feeling sick,” he advised. “When we’re in a flu season like this when there’s such a contagious strain that’s keeping people out of work for extended periods of time, it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Related: Running a Gold-Medal Business: Tips from the U.S. Olympic Curling Team

Adjust your scheduling strategy

Challenger said his firm often recommends small stores adjust their regular scheduling structure during flu season.

“Increase the number of shifts and have fewer people on call at any time. So if the flu virus does come in, a smaller number of employees will be affected.”


“Increase the number of shifts and have fewer people on call at any time. So if the flu virus does come in, a smaller number of employees will be affected.” -Andy Challenger (Photo: Andy Challenger)

You should also have a backup staffing plan in place before people start calling out sick with the flu, he said.

“A lot of companies have backup schedules year-round just in case somebody gets sick. At this time of year, people are particularly prone to be out of the workplace unexpectedly so it’s important to make sure your backup system is really solid going into and coming out of flu season.”

Related: 5 Ways to Improve Your Store’s Scheduling Process

Give more personal space

Germs are spread through close contact, said Challenger, so find ways to give everyone more personal space. Take a staff meeting, for example. Instead of gathering everybody in a small backroom close together, use a larger space.

“Better yet,” he continued, “if you can set up a conference call, that’s always a great way to do it so you don’t have to interact in person.”

Consider telecommuting

For the retail and hospitality industry, you likely need most of your staff on site, but consider if there are any back-office or supportive roles that can be performed at home. If so, give those workers flexibility to telecommute when possible to prevent unnecessary germ spread.

Related: Tips for Establishing a Telecommuting Policy for Your Small Business

Temporarily close up shop

If the flu bug takes over, a final option is to temporarily shut down business for a day or so — but only as a last resort, said Challenger.

“You really don’t want to have to get into that scenario where you have to close up your business,” he said. “Those are really significant losses. Even just one day of the month can impact the bottom line, and that’s what you’re trying to avoid at all costs.”

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