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It begins with a sniffle, followed by some throat clearing and a slight cough. As the hours pass, fever and chills have set in, along with that unmistakeable feeling of fatigue and achiness.

Ah, the flu. A malady that strikes the American workplace with absenteeism, upended project schedules and unmet deadlines. Unlike a bad cold which can take workers out of commission a day or two, the flu can keep the most resilient of the staffers flat on their backs for several days.

And this season, a nationwide shortage of flu vaccine portends a heavier than normal toll on productivity. "There's not a whole lot we can do except keep our fingers crossed," said Stefanie Zakowicz, spokeswoman for Tops Markets, Inc., one of many local companies that would normally offer its employees at-work flu shots.

Last year more than 1,000 Tops staffers rolled up their sleeves for free flu protection, including scores of store employees whose health plays a role in the grocer's food safety efforts.

"Good food standards and good personal hygiene are always top priorities for us, so we're concerned about a flu outbreak among our employees," Zakowicz said. "Fortunately, the predictions call for a mild flu season, so hopefully it won't turn into a major issue."

According to a recent employee benefits survey conducted for the Society of Human Resource Management, 60 percent of U.S. employers had planned to offered flu shots to their workers this fall absent the current vaccine shortage.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that an ounce of prevention does translate to a pound productivity for businesses. Healthy workers who had been vaccinated reported 43 percent fewer sick days and 44 percent fewer doctor visits as a result of upper-respiratory illnesses.

Under recently-issued government guidelines established to cope with the vaccine shortage, healthy adults are not eligible for the shots, opening the door to millions of potential sick days if flu strikes. Despite the ominous statistics, the medical community is optimistic that a lack of vaccine doesn't translate to a rampant flu season.

"There's a lot you can do through prevention," said Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Anthony Billitier. "Just because one person in an office comes down with the flu doesn't mean the whole place will be infected if you practice good 'respiratory etiquette.' "

Dr. Mark Roberts, an occupational health expert, who has served as medical director for several Fortune 500 firms agrees. "If we do all the things our mothers taught us -- wash your hands with soap and water, cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze and cough, and promptly dispose of used tissues -- we can significantly reduce the spread of the flu virus," Roberts said.

He also suggests gearing up physically to fend off the flu should it invade your home or workplace. "Starting off healthy really helps. Get enough sleep, eat a balanced diet, stay hydrated and reduce stress levels. All those things keep your immune system strong, helping to fight off flu or see a shorter duration if you should come down with it," Roberts said.

There's also a lot to be said for staying home from work when you're ill, be it the flu or a nasty, contagious cold. Not only will you protect your co-workers from whatever ails you, you might also speed your recovery and return to productivity.

"As an employer, I wrestle with this," Billitier said. "But if you have a fever and/or debilitating respiratory symptoms, you don't belong at work."

He said now is the time, ahead of the onslaught of the flu season, for employers to review their sick leave policies and communicate to workers that perfect attendence isn't always a good thing.


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