Daily new cases of COVID-19 have fallen below 100,000 for the first time in months in part due to the implementation of federal guidelines mandating mask-wearing in government buildings and on public transportation. Meanwhile, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests just 165 hospitalizations have occurred due to Influenza-like Illness (ILI) in the 2020-2021 flu season thus far, compared to between 410,000 and 740,000 ILI hospitalizations the CDC estimated occurred in the previous flu season. As Americans start to see the light at the end of the tunnel on COVID, employers may want to consider normalizing mask-wearing when their workers start feeling sick in the future, according to one workplace authority.

“Employers across the country are contemplating bringing their workers back to the office. Due to the pandemic, masks will almost certainly be part of those plans until the majority of the country is vaccinated,” said Andrew Challenger, Senior Vice President of global outplacement and business and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

“Challenger estimates regular flu seasons, on average, cost employers $14.9 billion in lost productivity each year. Absences due to sickness can be difficult for businesses to absorb while maintaining normal operations, especially for small and midsize companies. Embracing masks for workers who may be feeling sick or have someone in their household who is sick may cut down on these absences,” he added.

Percentage of Visits for Influenza-like Illness (ILI) Reported by the U.S. Outpatient Influenza-like Illness Surveillance Network (ILINet) Weekly National Summary, 2020-2021 and Selected Previous Seasons

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention FluView Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report for Week 5, February 6, 2021

Challenger’s productivity loss estimates are calculated using the prior year’s number of working-age people between 18 and 75 becoming ill with the flu, according to the CDC, and relies on the CDC predictions on flu season severity. It then factors in the current employment-to-population ratio and average hourly wage, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for four eight-hour shifts. The CDC recommends staying home from work for four to five days after the onset of symptoms. People are most contagious the three days after symptoms begin.

Studies have provided evidence that mask-wearing helps prevent the transmission of viruses that are spread through respiratory droplets, though none are conclusive. A study conducted last year* and published by the National Institutes of Health’s U.S. National Library of Medicine found that an area in Hong Kong with a 97% mask compliance rate had significantly lower transmission of COVID-19 compared to similar locations in size and demographics around the world. The CDC also published a brief on the observational effectiveness of masks.

People in East Asian countries have long worn masks to stave off the spread of illness. In China, the practice was traced back to a pneumonic plague outbreak which occurred in Manchuria in 1910 and 1911. During the 1918 flu outbreak, mask-wearing was adopted in Japan. Now, individuals often wear masks when they are ill, even with the common cold.

“As American workers wear masks to reenter the workplace, many may get used to the practice. Despite the controversy surrounding wearing masks, as life starts to return to normal with the use of masks, some Americans may embrace them when they feel ill in the future, especially in heavily populated urban centers,” said Challenger.

The stakes will be lower if workers are just trying to stop the spread of the common cold or mild flu. Wearing the mask can be more casual, and workers may decide not to wear them all the time while they are feeling ill, giving them some control. Employers may also create an environment where wearing a mask when a worker feels ill is accepted and endorsed, taking the political discourse out of the equation.

“Those who feel mask-wearing infringes on their personal freedoms when mandated by the government may feel differently if they can choose to wear one. Ultimately, post-pandemic mask-wearing may not work in every workplace. It certainly depends on the leadership, comfort of team members, and culture of the organization,” said Challenger.

Last year’s flu season followed a similar trajectory to the 2012-2013 season, according to the CDC, before the onset of COVID. The 2012-2013 season saw 33.7 million people sickened. The CDC estimates influenza sickened between 39 million and 56 million people last year.

Cumulative Rate of Laboratory-Confirmed Influenza Hospitalizations among cases of all ages, 2011-2012 to 2019-2020

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention FluView Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report for Week 5, February 1, 2020

The 2018-2019 flu season sickened over 35.5 million people, roughly 22 million of whom were working age, between the ages of 18 and 75, according to data from the CDC. 

“Thousands of companies reconfigured their workplaces to allow their teams to work remotely, and many plan to allow most or part of their workforces to work remotely all or some of the time going forward. If workers are able to conduct conference calls from home, this may limit the number of absences while also preventing workers who may feel under the weather from spreading any illnesses,” he added.

Indeed, according to a survey conducted online among 189 companies in June by Challenger, 43.3% of companies stated they would keep most of their employees working at home even after the pandemic passes.

Challenger offered some other tips employers might consider to help prevent the spread of the flu, post-pandemic and beyond:

  • Encourage getting a flu vaccine early and provide information on where to get one nearby. It is never too late to protect yourself, but the earlier you receive the shot, the better. 
  • Increase the number of shifts. This will reduce the amount of people working in the office at one time.
  • Limit meetings. If there is no need to gather large groups of workers in a confined space, then do not do it. Conduct meetings via conference calls or video conferencing.
  • Allow sick workers to stay home without fear of losing their jobs.
  • Institute flexible leave policies to allow workers to care for a sick child or loved one.
  • Provide no-touch trash cans, hand-washing stations, soap, and hand sanitizer.
  • Encourage employees to wash their hands frequently, avoid handshakes, and take other hygienic precautions, such as disinfecting workplace surfaces like phones and computers.

Source: Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

*Cheng VC, Wong SC, Chuang VW, et al. The role of community-wide wearing of face mask for control of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) epidemic due to SARS-CoV-2. J Infect. 2020;81(1):107-114. doi:10.1016/j.jinf.2020.04.024 

Check out Challenger’s 2020 Flu Report issued one year ago.

Challenger Past Flu Season Productivity Loss Estimates

2019-2020 Productivity Loss Estimate

14,346,832 estimated workers sickened

$28.44 – average hourly wage

Estimated Losses: $13.1B


2018-2019 Productivity Loss Estimate

20,000,000 estimated workers sickened

$27.48 – average hourly wage

Estimated Losses: $17.6B


2017-2018 Productivity Loss Estimate

25,000,000 estimated workers sickened

$26.74 – average hourly wage (preliminary data for January 2018 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics)

$855.68 – average wages lost due to missing four eight-hour shifts

Estimated Losses: $21.39B


2015-2016 Productivity Loss Estimate

11,049,083 estimated workers sickened

$26.63 – average hourly wage

$852.16 – average wages lost due to missing four eight-hour shifts

Estimated Losses: $9.4B


2014-2015 Productivity Loss Estimate

18,100,827 estimated workers sickened

$25.26 – average hourly wage

$808.32 – average wages lost due to missing four eight-hour shifts

Estimated Losses: $14.6B


2013-2014 Productivity Loss Estimate

17,166,702 estimated workers sickened

$24.19 – average hourly wage

$774.08 – average wages lost due to missing four eight-hour shifts

Estimated Losses: $13.3B

Source: Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. ©