Getting sick during cold and flu season is never fun for employees—and it can be even worse for companies. In the U.S., an estimated 111 million workdays are lost during flu season (which peaks between December and February), costing companies $7 billion a year in sick days and lost productivity, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In the U.S., an estimated 111 million workdays are lost during flu season.
The workplace itself can be a veritable hotbed of germs. A virus on one person’s hands can be transferred up to six times and spread to others as far as six feet away, so those who sit at adjoining cubicles or shared workspaces are likely the first to fall victim. There are also communal spaces to consider: elevators (those buttons have a lot of hands on them throughout the day), conference tables, water coolers, door handles and stair railings. Germs can live in the most common and often forgotten places, leaving workers particularly vulnerable.
“A company’s most valuable asset is its people, therefore it’s crucial to invest in this area for optimum business performance,” says Amanda Steele, head of asset services at CBRE. Investing in measures to protect employees during the cold and flu season—such as antibacterial wipes, hand sanitizer dispensers and employee education—will help boost productivity, reduce absenteeism and increase efficiency, Steele adds.
Here are steps companies can take to help ensure their office spaces are safe and healthy.
Clean Your Hands
Whether you are using the lavatory or leaving the subway, you’re bound to have germs on your hands. Washing your hands is a tried-and-true way of stopping germs from spreading. While you’ve likely been washing your hands your entire life, there stands a good chance that you’ve been doing it wrong. A 2013 study from Michigan State University found that only 5 percent of people washed their hands long enough to scrub away germs after using the bathroom. Men, according to the study, were particularly bad in the hand washing department. (Sorry, guys.) At least 15 percent of men didn’t wash their hands at all, compared with 7 percent of women, and when they did wash their hands, only 50 percent used soap.
So what’s the right way to wash your hands? According to a tutorial from Business Insider, simply use soap, lather your hands and rub them for 20 seconds (or about as long as it takes to sing the alphabet song from A to Z), making sure to rub the soap between your fingernails, too. Then rinse in hot water.
Drying your hands with a paper towel can also reduce germs by 77 percent, according to The Healthy Workplace Project.
If you can’t wash your hands, using hand sanitizers will help inactivate microbes when used properly. In the long run, it can also reduce a worker’s sick days by 21 percent, according to The Healthy Workplace Project.
Educate (and Inoculate)
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that companies offer onsite seasonal flu vaccinations to its employees, preferably at no cost to them. Letting employees know where they can get vaccines in their communities will help as well.
“During winter there are more requests from tenants for information they can share on how to prevent colds and flus, as well as pop-up clinics offering the flu vaccine in various offices,” says Steele.
Sick workers who force themselves into work end up doing more harm than good and should be dissuaded by companies, experts say.
“Presenteeism is believed to cost the same or more than absenteeism,” says Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology and environmental sciences at the University of Arizona.
“It has been estimated that a person who goes to work with a headache can cost a company up to $500 a day in lost work effort. A cold at work can cost $280 a day in loss effort,” adds Gerba.
Wipe Your Station Down
A person with a bad cold will spread the virus to about 30 to 50 percent of the commonly touched surfaces in a office, says Gerba,
“We have found that providing office workers with hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes reduces their risk of getting an infection in the office by up to 80 percent,” says Gerba.
Your telephone and keyboard can be incubators of particularly nasty germs, such as E. coli and staph. Using sanitizing wipes and disinfectant sprays to clean these surfaces down at least once daily helps to wipe out germs and reduce transmission.
If you sit at a shared workspace, don’t be alarmed. Oddly enough, while sharing anything with a contaminated colleague can spread germs, there may be some merits to sharing desks, says Steele.
“Hot-desking, a practice where multiple workers share a single workspace, means that employees clean out their desks every day, making it easier for the cleaning crew to do their job. This includes sanitizing all surfaces that might otherwise be covered by desktop clutter.
“Our staff sanitize their desk, phones, keyboards and mouses daily, which is conducive to a healthy workplace and one of the best preventions against spreading germs,” says Steele.
So let’s all do our part to keep our hands and desks clean for a healthy and productive workplace this winter season. After all, who wants to miss the work holiday get-togethers because they’re stuck in bed with the flu?