Aug. 19, 2009 -- Government health officials called on employers today to "set the right tone within their companies" in the face of a potentially challenging flu season ahead.
"In America, we love to praise the Puritan work ethic," said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. "But this fall, it would serve the country better to praise common sense and responsibility."
New federal guidelines released today ask business leaders to promote good hygiene in the workplace, develop plans for work continuity in the event of a flu outbreak, and encourage employees to get vaccinated for flu.
"Planning is essential," said Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. "[Many businesses are] busy dealing with a very, very tough economy and may not have taken time to really think through what a heavy flu season means."
Officials say companies need contingency plans that allow workers to telecommute and work in staggered shifts. And if a flu outbreak becomes severe, they say, companies may need to reduce face-to-face meetings or cut back on nonessential travel.
"Let's not just play wait-and-see. Let's be proactive," said Napolitano.
Many businesses across the country have been reviewing and updating their emergency policies since H1N1 surfaced last spring.
"Most companies already have contingency plans in place for larger hazards," said Ann Beauchesne with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "[Swine flu] is just one more piece."
She said unlike hurricane preparedness, the upcoming flu season poses additional challenges for businesses.
"With this pandemic, we have no idea [what to expect]," she said.
Adding to the uncertainty for business leaders is how a potential flu outbreak will affect schools.
Eric Lesser, a consultant with IBM's Institute for Business Value, said the biggest challenge facing companies is how to prepare for a slew of healthy-but-absent workers who have to stay home to care for their sick kids.
"You've gotta have the technology to dial-in remotely and share files," Lesser said. Businesses are finding that people working from home "can be very productive," but employees must be provided the capability to work virtually.
Government health officials also acknowledge the possibility that flu outbreaks could occur inside the workplace and are urging employers to take the lead in pushing vaccinations.
"We hope that employers do some personal outreach to the target population who may be in their employment," said Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.
Pregnant women, people with underlying health conditions and younger workers are among the groups slated to receive priority H1N1 vaccination later this fall. All workers are encouraged to get the seasonal flu vaccine, which is already being administered.
Officials added that employers should be lenient towards workers who stay home sick or leave work early due to illness, adding that any requirement of a doctor's note to prove their illness should be dropped.
"The medical community will be inundated attending to those who are sick," Locke said. "Having to issue notes and verification that someone is sick or someone else in the home is sick merely compounds the problem."
The Department of Health and Human Services released guidance on swine flu preparations to K-12 schools last week. It will release guidelines for higher education later this week.
Visit the ABC News OnCall+ Swine Flu Center to get all your questions answered.
Learn about swine flu's symptoms and find out whether you need to see a doctor.
Find out what belongs in your swine flu survival kit.
Government recommendations on swine flu preparations and prevention can also be accessed at www.flu.gov