February can be a pretty miserable and grey month, it’s also peak flu season. The NHS lists colds, sore throats, asthma, norovirus, painful joints, heart attacks and flu as the core winter illnesses to watch out for. Cold weather itself isn’t directly to blame, but its effects on our lifestyles is. All the time we spend indoors, in close quarters with others, with little or no natural sunlight and reduced immune systems are the main culprits in the spread of illness.
The workplace ticks many of these boxes, especially those with air conditioning, which keeps air circulating and can spread airborne diseases around a building in no time. It is estimated that the flu virus accounts for 10-12% of sickness days across the EU.
Yet there has been a dramatic drop in sick days taken in the UK from an average of 7.2 days a year to just 4.1 days (2017). Researchers say that this can’t be explained away by just medical improvements, citing a change in workplace attitudes as the main reason for the drop. Which means that there’s a high chance that increasingly people are coming into work even though they’re ill.
How clean is your office?
Office hygiene is a key consideration when trying to reduce the spread of illness in employees. Joblist recently published results of their investigation into people’s hygiene in the workplace, with quite horrifying results.
The results get off to a worrying start, a quarter of respondents admitted to wearing sweaty clothes to work and almost the same amount said they don’t always remember to slap on some deodorant before they head out of the door.
When the study turns to behaviours that can spread illness things begin to get less amusing. Almost half of respondents admitted to not washing their hands before eating, although less (18%) said they didn’t wash before eating communal or shared food. Even more concerning, just under a quarter said they don’t cover their mouth when coughing and sneezing.
Between a quarter and half of women and men take their mobile phone to the bathroom and up to 25% didn’t wash their hands once they were finished.
Sharing isn’t caring
A huge 73% of respondents claimed they had gone into work while sick, mostly with an active cold, but a quarter came in with serious illnesses such as an upset stomach or flu (20%). Once in the office they admitted to engaging in activities that may well hasten the spread of their illness, 63% attended meetings while just over half had desk discussions and 22% shook hands with co-workers.
Combining attendance while sick with poor hygiene habits and a failure to limit social interaction is a recipe for a virus to spread fast around the workplace. This can have a serious impact on productivity and be costly for any business.
How to stop the spread
The vast majority of illnesses are spread through touch. In the workplace we come into contact with many items that others have also touched. The flu virus can last for up to 3 days on surfaces such as phones, keyboards, door handles, kettles, the list goes on. Luckily, while it is easy to spread illness, the steps needed to prevent it are very simple.
Three out of five infections are spread by dirty hands, so wash hands often and well. Experts advise:
- Washing hands in warm water
- Use antibacterial soap
- Scrub for at least 20 seconds
- Rinse carefully
- Dry fully.
Hands should be washed at the very least after every bathroom visit, before food preparation and before eating.
If employees are unwell, the advice is that they should stay at home until their symptoms have gone. Encouraging staff to come in when they are unwell can spread illness across an entire company or organisation and the potential loss of many more working days. Reduced sick days may be a false economy, it does not account for presenteeism, employees who are returning to work, but are too unwell to complete their role effectively.
In some cases, offering the opportunity to work from home may be beneficial, especially when an illness is contagious but not debilitating. For example, common advice for Norovirus is to avoid contact for 48 hours after the sufferer was last sick.
If working from home isn’t an option, and even after the person has recovered, ensuring excellent hygiene where possible is advisable. Ill employees should minimise their contact with others in the workplace. They should try and keep to themselves, ensuring they cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze, preferably with a tissue which can be disposed of immediately. When hand washing isn’t an option, hand sanitizer gel can be used (although it isn’t a substitute for soap and water).
Sick or recently unwell employees should avoid sharing utensils and towels with others in the workplace. So, to make them a hot drink is more than an act of kindness, it is one of self-preservation. But let them wash up their mug!
If your organisation uses hot desking, consider providing antibacterial wipes or spray so that the new occupant can clean down the work space before use. Keyboards, desks, mice and phones are, unsurprisingly, some of the dirtiest items on a desk. The average keyboard can be host to 7,500 bacteria, while phones are home to around 25,000. Encourage employees to keep their workspace clean, dust free and to avoid eating there.
Aside from good hygiene, a healthy lifestyle is essential to minimising the spread of any illness. A balanced diet, regular exercise, fresh air and low stress levels all contribute to an individual’s ability to fight off whatever comes their way.
Employers can encourage and support all of this good behaviour via setting good examples from the top down, providing information sheets and emails. Advising on best practice and providing reminder posters in bathrooms and communal areas. Applying standard health and wellbeing best practice to the issue will keep the office healthy no matter what the time of the year.