Under the Influence: The Flu Effect on Apartment Communities


Those sniffles, coughs and hacks you hear are a reminder that flu season is upon us. And with a high concentration of residents in relatively small locales, apartments can be on the front line as the flu virus weaves its way through a community.

How the Flu Can Affect NOI

While this year’s outbreak hasn’t reached epidemic portions, the flu and H1N1, or swine flu, is making its presence known. Already, 35 states report widespread activity and 20 have confirmed high levels of influenza-like illnesses, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s FluView report released in mid-January. More cases are expected by the season’s peak in February.

Experts say that flu viruses are typically spread by droplets from coughing, sneezing or talking that come into contact with people within six feet. But the flu can be contracted by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching the mouth or nose. That means that common areas which are not properly cleaned and maintained can be launching pads for the viruses.

That can affect employees and residents and hit properties in the pocket book.

The annual cost to a company for lost labor and productivity resulting from employee absenteeism because of the flu reaches astronomical numbers. The CDC estimates that the flu costs businesses $10.4 billion annually in hospitalization and outpatient visits for adults.

Taking a proactive approach to education, creating awareness and taking advantage of opportunity can help minimize a flu outbreak at apartments and any other business or educational facility.

Properties Profit from Wellness Initiatives

Beth Taylor, who is director of health and productivity at Alliant Insurance Services in Newport Beach, Calif., is passionate about offering practical solutions to help employers keep workforces healthy at any time of the year. A veteran of the health, wellness, and fitness field for nearly 20 years, she says companies should create a buzz about maintaining a healthy working environment for employees and residents.

Often companies control their own destinies in keeping the flu and other viruses from creating a negative impact. The result is not only a much healthier work and living environment but a substantial savings in operating expenses, especially at a time when health care costs are soaring.

“What people don’t get is the connection between the environment and the health of people who live in that environment and how that translates to their bottom line,” Taylor says. “It’s about their occupancy rates; it’s about the safety of those who they employ and all of their expenditures. It makes a very compelling business case.”

Image of businessman sneezing while woman eating sandwich near him

Allow Sick Leave for Better Returns

Such was the case a few years ago for a retail distribution company that saw first-hand how establishing awareness and a healthy work environment could improve productivity and reduce sick time paid to employees.

The company experienced a significant rise of seasonal absenteeism that was tied to the flu. Initially, employees were encouraged to take flu shots, and the results weren’t very impressive. Absenteeism dropped only slightly, prompting a closer look.

A review of the company’s policies, environment, and culture revealed some issues. The sick time policy and janitorial service plan got a stern look.

Managers frowned on employees taking sick time, so workers came to work ill. Because the company skimped on cleaning the building to save money, door knobs, counters, and work stations weren’t properly wiped down. Bathrooms weren’t thoroughly cleaned and refilled with paper towels. Antibacterial stations were non-existent. The company became a breeding ground for the flu virus.

“They had to do a complete overhaul,” Taylor said. “They trained managers, and talked to managers about how important it was to let (sick) people go home from work. Within two years they dropped their absenteeism during the seasonal period by half.”

The company soon realized other benefits like the cost savings associated with a healthy, vibrant work force, she added.

Create Awareness for Your Apartment Community

Property managers can create an action plan to minimize the spread of flu and maintain a healthier, more productive workforce and community. Taylor says people generally want to do the right thing, and property management companies should seize the opportunity to rally a community.

Taylor recommends installing antibacterial stations, scheduling thorough and regular cleaning of common areas, and checking ventilation systems on older apartments that sometimes share airspace from unit to unit. Posting flu awareness and prevention tips through apartment newsletters, social media, and on the website helps build awareness. And creating a buzz about staying healthy that gets residents and employees talking will spread just as fast as germs, Taylor says.

Also, apply a gentle nudge to employees and residents to look into flu shots.

Most of all, don’t sacrifice the health and wellness of the community to save a few bucks.

“I’m a realist and know that this is a business that we’re running,” Taylor said. “Often times we cut corners because it may save us dollars on our line item sheet. What you could be cutting on your immediate costs could really be impacting you long term. So it’s about having a larger vision.”

Nonetheless, the CDC advises that anyone who has not gotten a flu shot this season should do so.


(Image sources: Shutterstock)



Contributing Editor, Property Management Insider
President, Ballpark Impressions, LLC

author photo two

Tim Blackwell is a long-time publishing and printing executive in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who writes about the multifamily housing and transportation industries. He has contributed numerous articles to Property Management Insider, and worked as a newspaper reporter in the D/FW area. Blackwell is president of Ballpark Impressions, and publishes the Cowcatcher Magazine. He is a member of the Fort Worth Chapter/Society of Professional Journalists.

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