Businesses are still paying the price of the pandemic: what employers can learn from this year’s flu season


  • This year Australia experienced an intense flu season with spikes in respiratory diseases such as influenza and covid.

  • As we reflect on this year’s flu season, we examine the physical and mental health impacts of seasonal flu illnesses and long-covid on a workforce.

  • The monetary and non-monetary costs to businesses.

  • Next steps for businesses to help their staff and be better prepared for next year’s flu season.

Flu season is a drain

Every year flu season comes around and creates a wave of workplace disruption. However, since the pandemic, it seems respiratory diseases and other common cold and flu illnesses have become more severe with long-lasting illnesses such as long-covid.

This is when people have a much longer recovery time, with some experiencing longer-term conditions that can last for three months or more.

Health professionals are still learning about the effects of long-term illnesses such as long-covid, however, it is believed they can manifest into more serious/chronic health conditions such as:

  • Respiratory disease;

  • Diabetes;

  • High blood pressure and chronic cardiovascular disease; and

  • Kidney disease.

Whilst more evidence comes to light on the physical impact of these long-term illnesses, what perhaps hasn’t been as widely addressed is the mental toll it will have on those affected.

When people experience the flu, it can weaken their immune system, make them more susceptible to other illnesses, and cause long-term health problems. This can greatly affect a person’s mental health as it often creates isolation, leading to serious mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

Dr. Anna Dickerman, Chief of Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medicine, and Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College (opens a new window), explains that there are increased rates of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in patients experiencing long-covid, that are consistent to those who have psychological symptoms from other chronic diseases.

Costs to businesses

Long-covid and other long-term illnesses can be debilitating for those experiencing it, they are often physically and mentally compromised and need to reduce their workload or take time away from work whilst they recover.

As more severe cases of influenza and long-covid can last past three months, which is a significant length of time for an employee to be absent from work, employers need to understand how these impact not only the affected individual but the overall workforce, and how they can respond accordingly.

Issues that can arise within the workforce are:

  • Increased absenteeism.

If workers are absent for a prolonged period, employers should anticipate the emotional and mental ramifications of it.

A worker who has long-covid or a longer-term illness, as a result, will likely suffer from both physical and mental illness symptoms. Financial reward aside, a person’s job can play a major role in their well-being.

It is well recognised that work plays a vital role in an individual’s well-being. It provides a sense of structure, purpose, and identity, an opportunity to socialise with people outside of family and friendship groups and learn new skills.

Workers who have long-covid or longer-term illnesses might also feel isolated and unable to take control of their future career prospects, further adding to their mental health illness.

Even if these employees are still able to attend work, presenteeism might set in.
“Presenteeism” is when someone continues to work but is unable to fully perform their duties due to injury or sickness – including mental health sickness. It can also be due to employees feeling disengaged in their role, leading them to physically ‘show up’ but work to levels that are less than optimal for business productivity.

With heavy workloads, pressured working environments and increased demand from businesses, employees who are unwell might feel compelled to continue working despite their health conditions.

Especially with the current economic climate, financial worries are at the forefront of people’s minds, and this could mean that health and well-being are weakened further.
Another unfortunate outcome is the burden it can create for teams and the rest of the workforce.

  • Burdened teams experience burnout.

If employees are picking up the slack from absent colleagues, they might feel stressed and under pressure to perform tasks that they’re not equipped to do or overburden themselves with more work than they can manage.

Burnout (opens a new window) has been classified by the World Health Organisation as a medical health disease and transpires in a number of ways. Employers need to be aware of the signs:

- Frequent absences: In Lockton’s Waking up to Absence Report (opens a new window), we found employees who have more regular short absences might be experiencing burnout and intervention can occur prior to a claim for compensation.

- Regular sickness: burnout and stress lead to exhaustion, which can lead to physical sickness and injury. If an employee is sick regularly, it might be caused by burnout.

- Working overtime: employees who are overworked and are clocking in too much overtime could be pushing themselves to their limit, which can lead to burnout.

- Disengagement: when burnout has started to set in, an individual’s morale might be lower than previously due to exhaustion and feelings of anxiety.

- Decrease in attention to detail and work efficiency: fatigue from burnout can result in a lack of focus and the ability to work to a high level.

  • Increase in mental and physical workers’ compensation claims.

Long-covid can be deemed a physical and mental health condition which means employees may submit a workers’ compensation claim for it.

Mental health claims are complex, lengthy, and expensive to manage – data from WorkSafe Victoria says that 55% of employees who take leave because of a mental injury are still away from their jobs after six months, compared with just 23% with physical injuries.

The cost of mental health claims can be 2.5 times that of a physical injury. Lockton is already seeing more workers’ compensation claims being received and, in some cases, accepted, for these types of conditions.

Employers need to be aware of this and foster a culture of care and understanding right throughout the business.

It’s important that employers take proactive measures to reduce the length of time a worker is absent from work by helping with their return-to-work transition.

Next steps

1. Supporting both work-related and non-work-related injuries.

Opening the lines of communication early after a workplace incident, whether psychological or physical, can make the return-to-work process easier for both managers or supervisors and the injured team member.

Keeping in touch with the injured or unwell workers can help them feel valued and supported. Ongoing communication during their recovery is also key in helping to achieve a fast and durable recovery.

2. Keep in touch.

Maintain regular contact with injured workers from notification of injury to claim closure. Workers who receive support from their employer are up to five times more likely to return to work and recover quicker.

By employers keeping in touch, the employee also feels more valued and better supported for their transition back into the working environment.

3. Physical and psychological injury management plans.

A consistent, coordinated and targeted approach to injury management is critical. Early intervention is critical for positive outcomes for both the individual and the organisation.

Employers should maintain regular contact with the insurer/agent to ensure timely decisions are being made and clear strategies are in place to assist the injured worker with recovery.

4. Invest in corporate private health insurance/employee wellbeing programs.

Lockton’s Corporate Private Health Trends report (opens a new window), states that research shows that health insurers are behaving more like health partners and providing employers with preventative health programs and initiatives across mental, physical, social and financial health to support employee and organisational health.

5. Career planning.

Employees who are forced to take time off due to sickness or injury may be concerned about their career opportunities and what it could mean for their role upon their return. By keeping in touch, employers can understand their employees’ needs and wishes and reassure them that these will be considered.

6. Utilise data to determine vulnerabilities in the workforce.

Through data and analysis, employers can identify vulnerabilities through absence trends and determine areas that require the most attention from which a health strategy can be designed, implemented and measured.

Once in place, understanding the impact of this burnout intervention program on all absent drivers will better inform employers.

Final thought: the pandemic continues to weigh heavy

It seems that the effects of the pandemic and now long-covid continue to evolve and whilst it’s hard to ascertain what the future holds and whether new strains will leave workforces crippled or if it becomes more like the common cold is all unknown.

For employers to ensure they are putting the welfare of their employees first and meeting their duty of care, they need to adopt a proactive approach and consider all options that align with the needs of employees and the business.

© 2023 Lockton Companies Australia Pty Ltd ABN (85 114 565 785) AFSL (291954) (‘Lockton’).
The contents of this publication are provided for general information only. It is not intended to be interpreted as advice on which you should rely and may not necessarily be suitable for you. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this document. Lockton arranges this insurance and is not the insurer. Any insurance cover is subject to the terms, conditions and exclusions of the policy. For full details refer to the specific policy wordings and/or Product Disclosure Statements available from Lockton on request.