During the flu season, many people have one thing on their minds — how to avoid getting sick. Best case scenario, the flu can put you out of commission for a week or more. At its worst, the flu can lead to hospitalizations and life-threatening illness, especially for sensitive populations. The CDC estimates that 710,000 people were hospitalized due to the flu between October 2017 and April 2018.
When someone in your office catches the flu, it can interrupt the entire flow of your workplace. As an employee, you are probably most concerned with avoiding infection. As an employer, you may wonder how to handle the added challenge of maintaining productivity while protecting the health of your employees. This year, avoid the flu by taking steps to protect yourself both in and out of the workplace.
Avoiding the flu at the office
If you have ever worked in an office, you know just how quickly illnesses can spread between coworkers. In a perfect world, everyone would be able to stay at home during the flu season and avoid interacting with people who may be infected with the flu virus. However, for most people, that is not possible (or even desirable). What other choices do you have to keep yourself safe and healthy during the flu season? How can you protect yourself from coming home with the flu?
You may not be able to avoid the flu virus completely, especially if your office has strict policies concerning sick days. However, you can still take action to lower your chances of getting sick. While at work, the CDC recommends you should:
- Keep your distance from people showing flu-like symptoms. Whenever possible, stay away from coughing coworkers, especially those that do not take the care to completely cover their nose and mouth while they cough or sneeze.
- Watch what you touch. The flu virus can survive on some surfaces for up to 48 hours. If possible, avoid directly touching workplace doorknobs, water fountains, handrails, shared telephones and microwaves with your bare hands. You should also avoid shaking hands whenever possible, as you never know if others are being careful about what they touch.
- Wash your hands thoroughly and often. Even if you wash frequently, you should still avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth to give the virus less chance to enter your system.
- Sanitize your desk area. Keep antibacterial wipes at hand to sanitize your desk, phone and computer keyboard at least once a day, or after you know that they have been touched by someone who is sick.
- Protect your coworkers. If you are sick, you should do your best to keep the flu from spreading. Let people know about your sickness, practice proper cough etiquette — covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze is the best way to avoid spreading the flu and other respiratory illnesses — and, if possible, stay home from work while you are contagious.
Keeping yourself safe from sick coworkers
Even if you cannot avoid working with someone who has the flu, it does not mean that you are guaranteed to catch the virus. To more fully protect yourself from the flu when you go into the office, you should pay extra attention to your physical and mental health this flu season. You can decrease your chances of catching the flu by:
- Getting the flu vaccine. Many physician’s offices, urgent care centers, pharmacies and even some employers offer flu vaccines at low or no cost to you.
According to the CDC, the vaccine can reduce your risk of getting sick with the flu and, if you still get sick, it can reduce the severity of your flu symptoms. The vaccine is commonly given in the form of a shot, though it also comes in a nasal spray, which is especially helpful for children.
- Taking care of your overall health. By getting enough sleep, staying physically active and managing your stress, you are setting your body up for success in fighting off the flu. Additionally, making sure that you drink plenty of fluids and eat nutritious foods will help improve your overall health.
For employers: Preparing your office for the flu season
Flu season typically peaks each year between December and February, according to the CDC. For 15 of the last 36 flu seasons, February has been the peak month of flu activity in the United States. While you should always take precautions to prevent the spread of germs and bacteria in the office, it is especially important to do so during these flu-heavy winter months.
Ideally, it would be best to prepare for the flu season before any of your employees come down with the virus. However, that is not always possible. If you start to notice your coworkers or employees exhibiting some or all of the following symptoms, the flu virus may be present in your workplace.
- Runny or stuffy nose
Additional symptoms that are not as easy to observe can include:
- Sore throat
- Muscle and body aches
Whether somebody in your office already has the flu or you are trying to get ahead of the virus, it is never too late to start adding flu-safety protocols to your workplace.
Preventing the flu from spreading in your office
When you protect your employees from the flu by preventing the spread of the virus in your workplace, your entire business will reap the benefits. If you have started to notice the spread of flu-like symptoms among your employees — or you wish to prevent the flu from entering your office in the first place — you should consider implementing the following practices.
- Promote office cleanliness. Depending on the size of your office, this may involve increasing the frequency of cleaning crew visits or scheduling additional disinfecting services. You should also have a supply of tissues, soap, paper towels, alcohol-based hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes readily available for employee use.
- Install hand-sanitizing stations throughout the office. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be an effective complement to regular handwashing. It should never be considered a substitute for soap and water, as certain types of bacteria are becoming increasingly tolerant of alcohol. Try placing hand-sanitizing stations in high-traffic areas, such as outside of conference rooms or near restrooms.
- Clarify your policy on sick days. Though it may not seem like the most practical solution for your business, encouraging employees to stay home while they are sick with the flu is an effective way to prevent the spread of the virus in your office and help guarantee that productivity does not dip during flu season. Make sure that your employees are aware of the office policy on sick days so that they are not afraid to take a day off when necessary. If possible, you can also consider giving employees the option to work from home while they are still contagious.
- Cross-train your employees. If you are working on time-sensitive projects, make sure that multiple employees understand how to perform critical tasks. This will help keep your office running smoothly while enabling potentially-contagious employees to feel more comfortable taking a day or two off to recover.
- Offer the flu vaccine to your employees. Offering the flu vaccine to your employees may help increase the percentage of workers that are protected from this year’s flu.
- Clean the air. Even if an employee is careful about covering their mouth and nose when they cough or sneeze, they could still be spreading the flu virus through the air in their exhaled breath (Yan, et. al 2018). To combat the spread of the flu in high-traffic areas of the office, consider adding an air purifier. The Molekule PECO technology has been independently tested by Aerosol Research and Engineering Laboratories to destroy airborne bacteria and viruses. It was found that PECO reduced concentrations of bacteria, viruses, mold and endospores by 99.99%.
The CDC says the 2017-2018 flu season was one of the most severe on record. Though it may not be possible to keep your workplace completely free from the flu virus, you should not feel completely powerless this flu season. By taking steps to keep you and your coworkers safe from the spread of the flu, you can reduce the impact that the flu season has on your office and your personal health.