Understanding the Steep Business Costs of ‘Everyday’ Illnesses

According to the American Lung Association, the average American suffers from between two and four colds per year. Often called the “common cold,” the illness causes symptoms like a runny nose, congestion, sneezing and a cough, and normally resolves fully within a few days.

When you consider biorisks that threaten your enterprise, you may not think of the common cold first. COVID-19, avian flu, or SARS might come to mind more readily. But what about the “normal” diseases that have been around forever? When costs are tallied, these everyday illnesses can pose an enormous threat to your enterprise by costing you time, money and productivity. In order to gain a competitive edge, it’s crucial to take these diseases and their prevention in the workplace seriously, too.

Minor illnesses can cost you major time and money

When your employees are out sick, your enterprise pays a price. More people are staying home sick now than ever before – more than 1.5 million Americans called in sick in December 2022 alone. And that’s a good thing.

It’s best that employees stay home when they’re sick. They need rest to recover, and their coworkers need a virus-free workplace. Company policies should continue to encourage sick employees to stay home, as workplace outbreaks of even minor diseases can have extensive costs.

In 2020, CNBC reported that the common cold costs the US economy around $40 billion each year in terms of missed work and school days. In 2003, the University of Michigan Health System reported that parents were missing an average of 126 million workdays to care for kids who had colds. Employers also pay for common illnesses in other ways: for instance, the common cold results in around 100 million yearly doctor visits, which contribute to higher healthcare costs for businesses.

The bottom line? Your enterprise can expect to lose a significant number of work hours when employees call out with colds, coughs and sore throats. Pressuring them to come in to work sick, however, is not the solution.

How sniffles and sore throats can slash productivity

“Sniffles and sore throats,” we aren’t talking about infections like Strep A, RSV and influenza. These illnesses can be much more serious than the common cold, and when your employees are suffering with that level of illness, they generally don’t feel well enough to report to work.

The cold, however, can leave employees feeling miserable but technically able to struggle through the workday. Sadly, employees’ anxiety about calling in sick has worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic. Many workers worry about how sick days will impact their career in the long run, and they’ll often come to work without being fully present – a phenomenon known as “presenteeism.” According to the Harvard Business Review, “presenteeism” costs US employers around $150 billion each year.

The need for policies that mitigate risks of everyday illnesses

When employees don’t show up for work, you may end up paying more than just their wages. You may need to pay overtime or incentives to encourage other employees to take up the slack. The quality of your product may suffer, project timelines may have to change and decision-making meetings may have to be postponed. All of these setbacks can pose opportunities for your competitors to get ahead.

Sick employees in your workplace, however, will contribute to further disease spread. Is there any way to reduce absenteeism and presenteeism while promoting employee health at the same time? With strategic policy-making on your part, it’s possible to strike this delicate balance.

Workplace policies that actually work

With these challenges in mind, here are some policies and procedures that can effectively address common illnesses in the workplace.

Develop robust work-from-home capabilities

Work from home is on the decline. In fact, in one year’s time, the percentage of full-time workers at home has dropped from 32.4% to 27.2%. Should your enterprise participate in this trend?

Whether you require employees to work onsite or not, it’s important to maintain flexibility in this area. If you’re able to quickly pivot to a work-from-home setup for individual team members when needed, you’ll have a powerful tool to help minimize the spread of communicable diseases. And they can allow parents the ability to care for sick children and also tend to their work.

Create a work culture that promotes long-term wellness

If employees’ lifestyles are unhealthy overall, they’ll be more susceptible to contagious diseases. Stress, lack of sleep, an unhealthy diet and smoking can all take their toll on the immune system. While people with healthy lifestyles can still get sick, you can significantly reduce your employees’ risk by promoting their overall well-being with gym access, mental health services, stress management and nutritional counseling.

Creating a workplace that fosters autonomy, creativity and independent problem-solving can also have a real impact on your team’s overall health. In fact, demanding jobs that offer no sense of control are associated with a host of long-term health risks, like diabetes and heart disease, that can leave your employees more vulnerable to common illnesses.

Design common sense leave and schedule policies

Reducing the pressure on sick employees to come to work is one of the most crucial steps for limiting workplace disease spread. We recommend several proven practices for combating this issue:

  • Ask employees to stay home when sick, or leave work immediately if symptoms begin
  • Provide flexible leave and alternative scheduling options
  • Maintain adequate staffing and provide cross-training so that an employee’s absence does not hinder daily operations
  • Develop a culture that promotes employees staying out of the office when ill

Environmental disease control

We learned a lot about contagious disease from the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of those lessons can be applied to diseases like the common cold. Measures like social distancing, masking and disinfecting common areas can limit disease spread among employees. It is no accident that many of us had no colds during the time when we were masked in the office or working from home. Those measures, although they have downsides, definitely limit virus spread in the workplace. For a large operation that spans multiple sites, careful oversight and additional staffing will likely be necessary to effectively implement these policies.

During the COVID-19 era, we have learned much more about how effective, yet unobtrusive, improved indoor air ventilation and filtration can be. It markedly reduces COVID-19 spread, as well as spread of other common viruses like influenza and rhinovirus. It also is helpful when less common, yet dangerous, pathogens like measles arise in offices. In-room air filtration units with HEPA filters are low cost ways to make most workplaces safer. Exploring opportunities to add such filters or improve indoor ventilation can pay big dividends to creating a healthy workplace. Improved ventilation also has been shown to lead to improved productivity. These measures can be win-win situations for employees and risk managers.

Mitigate threats on every front with the PHC Pharos Platform

Your business needs robust policies and procedures in place to mitigate the threats posed by everyday illnesses. When it comes to colds and flus, the question is not if they will happen, but how you’ll meet the challenge when they do.

The same is true of emerging large-scale threats, like epidemics, pandemics and new diseases.The PHC Pharos Platform offers actionable insights and solutions to address biorisks that pose novel threats to your business. Relying on diverse data sets, AI and machine-learning technology, this tool enables you to assess biorisks and make timely, relevant recommendations to protect your organization. Watch our video or schedule a demo to learn more about PHC Global and the PHC Pharos Platform.


Enter your contact information below and we'll be in touch with you ASAP.

Get started with the Pharos Platform. 

We are excited to show you the PHC Pharos Platform in action!

Enter your contact information and we'll reach out to schedule a demo.

Scroll to Top