Winter is right around the corner, and that means so is cold and flu season. Once the illness makes it into your office, there’s no telling which sniffling, sneezing, and
coughing coworker might give it to you next.
Catching a seasonal sickness can sap your energy and productivity for days or even weeks, so certainly should be avoided if possible. Still, there’s a fine line between taking normal precautions to ward off germs and going overboard — refusing to shake hands or showing up in a surgical mask — and alienating or, at the very least, annoying your coworkers.
David Lewis, president and CEO of human resources consulting firm OperationsInc, says a few simple measures can go a long way toward decreasing the spread of germs. Lewis’s tips are easy to implement and use in any office, and more effective than glaring at or denouncing every coworker who sneezes near you.
1. Avoid places where people — and germs — congregate.
When it comes to preventing illness at work, understanding how diseases spread and what precautions you can take to avoid getting them is more than half the battle, Lewis says. It’s important to be aware, for example, that the door handles of pantry cupboards and buttons on copy machines are hotbeds of germs, as are many other pieces of office equipment. While you shouldn’t hole up in your office for weeks at a time, try not to spend too much time in high-trafficked areas, and wash your hands after touching shared surfaces.
2. Sanitize your hands before eating or touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
Alcohol-based sanitizer is considered a highly effective way of reducing the number of germs on your hands. While soap and water is the preferred cleansing method, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, hand sanitizers that contain at least 60% alcohol can be a temporary fix if your hands are not visibly dirty. Sanitizing after every handshake might be overkill, but certainly use it — or, even better, wash your hands with soap and water — before eating or putting your hands near your eyes, mouth, nose, or any open cuts.
If sanitizer isn’t already available in your workplace, you can keep a small container on your desk or talk to your manager about having dispensers installed in strategic office locations. Lewis recommends they be placed directly outside of every restroom, as well as in any pantries or kitchens and by copy machines.
3. Clean door knobs, computers, and other office surfaces regularly.
Most offices have some sort of cleaning system to get trash taken out, bathrooms cleaned, and dishes washed. However, they often miss common surfaces that many people touch on a daily basis — elevator buttons, door knobs, sink handles, computer keyboards, light switches, etc. — so don’t make any assumptions. To help reduce germ spread in the office, you can make a point of daily wiping down your own workstation with sanitizer or a similar disinfectant.
4. Make a point of getting your flu shot.
It’s true that the seasonal flu vaccine isn’t effective 100% of the time, but getting a shot is as much about protecting others as it is about helping yourself. The scientific name for this concept is “herd immunity.” The basic theory behind herd immunity is that as the percentage of people immune to a particular disease goes up, the ability of the pathogen to spread goes down. In other words, it’s much harder to have an outbreak of flu in an office where you and 75% of your coworkers are vaccinated than in a workplace where none are.
5. Don’t be afraid to take a sick day or work from home.
As an employee, it can be hard to know when “sick” merits taking a day off. If you’re coughing, sneezing, and generally unwell, though, remember that your illness affects not only you but also the people around you. The last thing you want to do is drag yourself to work and then infect half a dozen coworkers with your cold or flu. If you don’t feel like you need a sick day, then talk to your manager about working from home — it’s in the best interest of the office for your boss to say yes.
If you’re a manager, remember that it’s up to you to help draw lines. Lewis says that, for him, a cough paired with other symptoms is a red flag that the person is contagious and likely to infect others in the office. “For a lot of positions in our country — certainly in my business it’s true — you don’t have to come to work to do your job,” he says. “If someone could perform their job from home and therefore limit the spread, then why not let them do that?”
What are your most pressing workplace challenges or concerns? What questions do you have on how to get ahead in your career today? Email the Business Insider Careers team at [email protected], and we’ll find the answers.
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