The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced that the influenza season in the United States started early this year, with flu activity remaining high and likely to continue for some time. In response to these high illness rates, a medical expert offers four strategies to help employers prepare for the possibility that the flu could impact their businesses.

“An organization can be severely impacted by people coming to work when they’re sick,” said Mary Capelli-Schellpfeffer, M.D., medical director of Loyola University Health System Occupational Health Services. “We know illness can spread from person to person, causing entire work groups to be affected. But less obvious is how job performance, organization, productivity, creativity and financial stability can all be affected.”

When a workplace is impacted by the flu, productivity can take a hit – not only from employee absences or presenteeism, but also by creating a distraction that causes coworkers to focus on the illness instead of their jobs. Additionally, it can affect how outsiders, such as clients and customers, view the stability of the company.

“Encourage employees who are sick to use their sick time. Some don’t know they have it because they’ve never had to use it,” she added. “Put a plan in place now so if you have a deadline there are procedures in place – like how to work from home. By making small changes, we can protect each other and our businesses.”

Capelli-Schellpfeffer offers the following four tips to help businesses prepare for a flu outbreak in the workplace:

1. Communicate your policy on attendance for sick employees.Make sure employees are aware of the company’s attendance policy and identify a point person for questions. Give examples to illustrate when employees should stay home due to sickness.

2. Prepare for unexpected absences.It’s possible that schools and daycares could close due to illness, forcing parents to leave work to care for their children. Sick employees also should be sent home to avert spreading the infection. This may cause staffing problems. Be sure your company has a plan in place to meet staffing needs in such cases.

3. Good housekeeping equals good health.Regular surface cleaning minimizes germ exposure. Eliminate clutter on counters, especially around sinks and food preparation areas, to ease the job of wiping down these often germ-filled areas and promote quick drying.

4. Focus your company’s culture on health.This includes having a prevention program that offers annual flu shots, informs employees about ways to stay healthy and what to do to avoid infectious illness. Also, find prominent places to hang posters that remind people to wash their hands before meals, after sneezing or coughing and when moving between tasks.

“Though there is a cost involved in promoting wellness, it is small in comparison to the pricey hit companies take when their work force is impaired by illness,” said Capelli-Schellpfeffer. “A flu shot program is an investment that yields big returns for businesses.”

And the bottom line for workers who contract the flu? Stay at home.

“If you’re sick, you shouldn’t be in the workplace,” Capelli-Schellpfeffer said. “It interrupts business and puts others at risk of infection.”