How to protect your small business from the ‘super cold’

There’s been lots of talk about a ‘super cold’ sweeping the UK. But does it really exist – and if so, how can you protect your small business?

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You don’t have to spend too long online to find talk of the ‘super cold’ sweeping the UK. Whether it’s articles in the news or complaints on social media, you can easily get the impression that the nation is being hit by a far more powerful strain of cold and flu than normal – and absences are soaring as a result.

But, is this true?

Is the ‘super cold’ worse than the spate of cold and flu illness that hits around this time every year? Is it causing more absences? And, most importantly, how can you protect your small business from the disruption and potential loss of income that a sudden spate of unexpected absences can cause?

Is the ‘super cold’ real?

In short, no.

The problem isn’t that the UK is suddenly being hit by some much more powerful strain of cold and flu virus.

Rather, as Dr Keith Reid from Swansea Bay University Health Board explained to ITV Wales:

“Flu was non-existent in autumn and winter 2020 as lockdowns, mask wearing and increased hand hygiene stopped it and other winter bugs from spreading from person to person.

“We have been expecting to see flu come back this year, and potentially at levels up to twice as high as a normal flu season.

“People were simply not exposed to flu and other seasonal viruses last year, so the level of immunity in the community is likely to have dropped and people will be susceptible.”

In other words, the problem isn’t that the virus is more powerful but that our bodies aren’t as good at fighting back because they didn’t have to do it last year.

the problem isn’t that the UK is suddenly being hit by some much more powerful strain of cold and flu virus

So, when we do get ill, we feel worse than we have done in other years, and there is also evidence to suggest that the number of people getting ill is higher than in previous years.

Is the ‘super cold’ causing more absences than usual?

Ok, so we’ve established that the ‘super cold’ isn’t actually worse than normal but, like a retired boxer that returns to the ring, our bodies are out of practice at fighting off illness due to lockdown largely preventing us from getting ill last year.

But, is that combination leading to more people being off sick than in other years?

Well, from the data we have, this does seem to be the case.

our bodies are out of practice at fighting off illness due to lockdown largely preventing us from getting ill last year

Analysis from HR software company Breathe found that, compared to October 2019 (which is far more comparable than 2020), the number of sicknesses logged under ‘cold’ on their systems was 10% higher in October 2021.

Obviously a 10% rise is hardly spectacular but it does indicate that, on the whole, we are being hit harder by cold and flu than we were two years ago.

How can I protect my small business from the ‘super cold’?

Based on what we know, it’s definitely worth making sure that you’re doing everything you can to protect your business from the cold and flu virus hitting the UK.

But, what can you do?

Encourage your employees to get the flu vaccine

As the NHS flu vaccine website puts it, the flu vaccine “gives the best protection against flu” (as you’d expect).

Like any vaccine, it’s not 100% effective and you can catch the flu after being given the vaccine, but it should be milder than if you hadn’t had the vaccine.

The vaccine is only offered free on the NHS to certain groups (primarily the over 50s and people with certain underlying health conditions), with private providers charging around £14.99 for the jab.

How significant a barrier this cost is will depend on your employee’s personal circumstances but you can certainly make sure your employees are aware of the benefits of the flu vaccine, and you could even consider helping them out with the cost if your finances allow.

Let your staff rest when they’re sick

As this Wired article on the UK’s attitude to sickness and work makes clear – we have a big problem with ‘presenteeism’, people working from home (or even coming into work) when they’re not well.

There are two big problems with this: people make more mistakes when they’re sick, and they can’t recover as well if they keep working when they’re not 100%.

As Jonathan Richards, CEO of HR software company Breathe explains, this is a crucial part of creating a good workplace culture and especially important for small businesses:

“It’s important companies foster the right culture whereby presenteeism isn’t an issue and employees feel supported to take a day off when feeling ill. It may sound simple, but toxic workplace cultures are an all-too-common story of burnout.

“That’s why SMEs must focus on company culture by prioritising employee health and well-being, leading from the front and promoting the right values from the top down.

“After all, companies are all about their people, so businesses should be doing everything possible to support them best, starting with encouraging rest when ill.”

Maintain good hygiene standards at work

It’s worth noting that all the rules you may have implemented at work to stop the spread of COVID-19 also work to prevent the spread of cold and flu too.

So, just because a large proportion of the UK population is now vaccinated, you shouldn’t necessarily ditch having hand sanitiser available and encourage your employees to catch coughs and sneezes in tissues or their arms.

As this guide to workplace hygiene from employer solutions law firm Davidson Morris makes clear, one of the best ways to keep disease at bay is to invest in workplace cleaning.

This should combine regular deep cleaning (including hiring external cleaners to clean your business premises) and more frequent disinfection of ‘hotspots’ like door handles and telephones that are touched by multiple people throughout the day.

Final thoughts

As we established earlier, there is not (despite what some on social media might proclaim) some massively powerful ‘super cold’ sweeping the nation and making us all sicker than normal.

What’s actually happening is that we’re being attacked by the same sort of cold and flu viruses as in previous years but, because we were in lockdown and had much lower exposure last year, our bodies are out of practice at fighting off illness.

So, the viruses we normally fight off fairly easily are hitting us harder – meaning we’re ill for longer and feel worse.

And the data that we have does indicate that more people are taking sick days as a result, so this is something you need to be aware of as a small business owner.

Lastly, there are three main things you can do to protect your business.

  1. Encourage (or even financially assist) your employees to get the flu jab – this costs around £14.99 from private providers and is offered free on the NHS to some groups
  2. Let your staff rest when they’re unwell – expecting them to work through their illness will only result in mistakes and stop them from fully recovering
  3. Make sure you have good workplace hygiene standards in place – this will help prevent the spread of all disease (not just COVID-19), so think about continuing to provide hand sanitiser, encouraging good practices like catching coughs and sneezes in tissues/arms, and investing in thorough office cleaning that includes frequent disinfection of ‘hotspots’ like door handles and telephones.

While the ‘super cold’ is not actually a real thing, it’s still really important to be aware of how cold and flu can affect your small business, and how you can best take care of your employees.

Alec is Startups’ resident expert on politics and finance. He’s provided live updates on the budget, written guides on investing and property development, and demystified topics like corporation tax, accounting software, and invoice discounting. Before joining, he worked in the media for over a decade, conducting media analysis at Kantar Media and YouGov, and writing a wide variety of freelance pieces.

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