Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, around 3-5 million severe influenza cases were reported annually around the world, and this year, after two years of almost no cases, the Southern Hemisphere saw high levels of influenza early in their winter between May-June 20221. In the Northern Hemisphere, seasonal influenza generally occurs in epidemics throughout their cold season between November and April2, therefore, it is important for countries in the Northern Hemisphere to prevent and plan for the increase in transmission of these viruses.
Many factors are involved in why winter weather usually brings an uptick in respiratory illnesses. Reasons include spending more time indoors, keeping windows and doors closed, using crowded public transport rather than cycling or walking, and some viruses transmit more readily with cold, dry air.
Dr Irene Lai, Medical Director at International SOS, said
As more employees return to the workplace, and social gatherings and travel become more frequent throughout the holiday season, public health experts are concerned about a potential surge of flu and COVID-19. Organisations should similarly anticipate a rise in illness and take steps to reduce the risk. Encouraging vaccination, even running a workplace vaccination campaign, can reduce illness and absence. Workers should be encouraged to remain at home if they are sick. Organisations that have not yet reviewed their workplace ventilation should do so now.Winter also brings shorter days with reduced sunlight. This may impact an individual’s sleep, appetite, energy levels and mood. Seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression, can occur. Depression is a significant contributor to the global burden of disease and is known to affect around 280 million people worldwide3. Creating a working culture that supports mental health and wellbeing whilst also ensuring employees have access to mental health professionals is best practice.
Top health and wellbeing tips that organisations can encourage for winter season preparedness:
- Have your COVID-19 booster and flu vaccine at the recommended time.
- Be physically active – If you can’t keep up your regular activities due to the weather, set a routine of doing some indoor exercise.
- Choose healthy food and beverages – Eat nutritious food to boost your immunity and keep your energy levels up. Choose fresh, unprocessed foods as much as possible, avoiding foods high in sugar and unhealthy fats. Hydrate with water.
- Prioritise mental wellbeing – Practice mindfulness activities daily to stay engaged, present and make time to connect with others.
- Be careful of trips and falls outdoors - Avoid slipping on ice and snow by walking at a slower pace and wearing appropriate shoes.
- Prepare for severe weather events – Winter storm often comes with little or no warning and may cause power outage. Keep several days’ supply of food, extra batteries and other essentials to avoid leaving your home.
1. World Health Organization: Q&A: Influenza in the context of COVID-19
2. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control: Seasonal Influenza Fact Sheet
3. World Health Organization: Depression Fact Sheet 2021