Surviving the Sick Office

Flu season isn't over yet. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control recently released a bulletin warning that it might be about to hit its peak. In the first week of March, 24 states were still reporting widespread cases of flu, with 20 more reporting increases in some areas of the state. Though the season has been relatively mild so far, experts warn that many healthy people are still susceptible because they did not get shots this year following warnings of a pending vaccine shortage. Since many workplaces didn't offer the vaccinations, health officials say it's even more important this year to make sure employees wash their hands regularly and stay home if they have symptoms of the virus.

A recent survey led by Dr. Charles Gerba of the University of Arizona found that germs lurk throughout offices. Researchers tested samples from 328 surfaces--from cubicles to conference rooms--in office buildings in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and Tucson, Ariz. The study, funded by a grant from The Clorox Co., recorded the highest levels of the human parainfluenza 1 virus (HPIV1)--a virus that causes respiratory infections like bronchiolitis and pneumonia and can live on surfaces for up to three days--on the desktops of cubicles and offices. They also found the virus on telephones, door handles and light switches.

NEWSWEEK's Jennifer Barrett Ozols spoke with Roslyn Stone, chief operating officer of Corporate Wellness Inc., a national occupational health care provider in Mount Kisco, N.Y., and chairman of the workplace flu prevention group at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about how to lessen your chances of catching a virus at work. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What can employers do to help prevent their employees from getting sick at work?

Roslyn Stone: The way to change behaviors in any employee health matter is leadership by example. We encourage that the CEO be the first to get a flu shot. Flu shots offer one of the highest returns on investment of any wellness program you can do in the workplace. But this year, none of our clients were able to get flu shots [because of government restrictions due to the vaccine shortage]. So the first piece of advice we gave is to find a way not to encourage your employees to work sick. The message needs to come from the top: stay home if you're sick, and when I'm sick I'll stay home too ...

Do that many people really come to work sick?

There's this mindset now in most businesses of working lean and mean, this feeling that if I am not at work, someone else will do my job and maybe do it better than me. So there's a fear factor. And there's not wanting to dump on co-workers. There are lots of reasons people go to work sick. They won't think twice about staying home when kids are sick, but when they are sick, they go on. Also, so many people don't have sick time. We're really fortunate that the flu season is peaking late this year--the latest CDC bulletin says the flu might not have peaked yet. If the flu season had peaked in December, a lot of people would have been out of sick days.

What can employees do to protect themselves from sick colleagues?

No matter how careful you are, you're touching your hands to your mouth, eyes, nose all day. Wash your hands frequently and properly and wipe down your desk with disinfectant each day, and you'll see a dramatic difference in your personal health. If you can get everyone around you to do the same thing, you can make a dramatic difference in the health of your office. And the cost is negligible.

Is it really necessary to disinfect your desk daily?

Yes. Some viruses, like the virus that causes the upper-respiratory problems, will stay alive on a surface for 72 hours.

What if you've got a cold? Should you avoid your co-workers?

Sneezing into your elbow helps. When you sneeze into your hand, your hand becomes the vehicle that exchanges the germ. You shake hands with people, you touch money and then give it to someone, and so on. So sneezing into your elbow is doing a slight bit not to share your germs. And after you go back to work after being sick, be sure to disinfect your phone, your mouse and keypad, and your desk so you don't re-infect yourself. Hand washing, of course, is also important.

Is there a right or wrong way to wash your hands?

Oh, yes. You rarely see someone properly wash their hands. Most of us don't. You need to wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 to 30 seconds. That's a very long time. It's the equivalent of singing "Happy Birthday" to someone twice.

How big a problem are germs in the office?

There was a Harvard Business Review study last fall on "presenteeism" and the numbers were staggering. The cost of people going to work sick is more than the cost of absenteeism.

Why is that? Researchers have shown that people who come to work sick are less productive, they make more mistakes, and work more slowly and have a higher rate of workplace accidents. It's mind-boggling.

Do you find that more companies are creating health policies to stop the spread of viruses like the flu?

Companies have done a relatively good job of starting to think about different kinds of crisis plans that include illness and some employee health issues; but they haven't thought about the flu as an employee health issue, which is surprising. But I hope that [because of the vaccine shortage] we've been able to establish some caution and good behaviors this year that will help us going forward.