It came early this year and arrived with a vengeance, forcing major U.S. cities to declare public health emergencies; hospitalizing thousands; and causing twenty pediatric deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Employees who work in close quarters are particularly susceptible to the highly contagious illness. Why? The CDC says people with the flu can spread it to others up to about six feet away, mainly by droplets made when they cough, sneeze or talk. A person can also get the flu by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it, and then touching their own mouth or nose.
Chances are you sit within six feet of a colleague and touch dozens of contaminated surfaces each day. But the good news is, there are steps you can take at work to help reduce your chances of getting (or spreading) the flu. Here are 10 of them:
Clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces. Viruses on surfaces like sink faucets and door handles can spread rapidly, especially in public places such as offices and schools, says Dr. Kelly Arehart, Global Innovation Manager for The Healthy Workplace Project at Kimberly-Clark Professional. “Cleaning surfaces with disinfecting wipes can reduce surface contamination on these germ ‘hot spots.’ Facilities that provide these and other tools to employees can make a difference.”
A recent study for The Healthy Workplace Project by Dr. Charles Gerba of the University of Arizona found that implementing the program’s “wash, wipe, sanitize” protocol in the workplace reduces the probability of catching the flu or common cold by 80%. It can also reduce the number of surfaces contaminated by viruses by 62%.
Wash your hands often. This is especially important before eating, after using the restroom and after being outside, Arehart says. Use soap and warm water for 20 seconds. “It is also important to dry your hands with a clean, fresh towel. Use instant hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available.”
Get vaccinated. According to the CDC, an annual seasonal flu vaccine (either the flu shot or the nasal-spray flu vaccine) is the best way to reduce your chances of getting the flu and spreading it to others.
Don’t wait until you or your colleagues are sick to start taking action. The reality is that most healthy adults can start infecting others one day before symptoms start to develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick themselves, says Bill Moffitt, chief executive of Nanosphere, a company that develops, manufactures and markets an advanced molecular diagnostic platform that produces quicker test results for the flu. “That means that you can start infecting others before you even know you’re sick.” Make a habit of washing your hands, cleaning your workspace surfaces, and using hand sanitizer all year round.
Take steps to prevent the spread of germs. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze and then throw the tissue away, Arehart says. “Try to use an anti-viral tissue, since some cold and flu viruses can live up to 24 hours on regular tissues.” Another way to prevent the spread of germs: Cough or sneeze into your elbow, she says. “One sneeze can spray up to 3,000 infectious droplets into the air at more than 100 mph. If you don’t have a tissue handy, use the inner part of your sleeve at the elbow.”
Wash your coffee cup with hot soapy water. If people around you are getting sick, the things that we drink from offer a quick way for germs to enter our system if they inadvertently become contaminated, Arehart says. “That cursory rinse isn’t enough to remove the contamination, so wash well.”
Stay out of the office kitchen. Most people don’t realize that office kitchens are often a breeding ground for the flu, Moffitt says. “Try not to share eating utensils, dishes and linens if possible. During flu season it’s best to use disposable products. If those aren’t available employees should wash everything thoroughly before they use it.”
Limit interactions with co-workers. Avoid shaking hands with people, Arehart says. “Few people will take offense if you offer the lighthearted response that with the flu epidemic, you’d rather be safe than sorry.”
You’ll also want to limit casual conversations with co-workers if there is a flu outbreak, Moffitt says. “And if a co-worker is showing signs of the flu politely ask them to go home if possible and if they don’t, try to keep your distance from them. People with the flu can spread it to others up to about six feet away.”
Maintain a healthy lifestyle. “Get plenty of sleep during the winter months,” says Peter Handal, chief executive of Dale Carnegie Training, an international training and solutions company. “Being well-rested is a great defense to avoiding getting sick.”
Also eat a healthy, well-balanced diet, stay hydrated, and exercise regularly.
If you get sick, stay home. If you do become sick with flu-like symptoms, the CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone. “Work from home,” Arehart says. “Many companies are flexible with regard to where you work, so if you don’t have to go to the office, don’t.”
How do you know if you have the flu?
If you’re feeling under the weather you should call or visit your doctor–but you can also research common symptoms online.
“Many times people don’t differentiate the flu from the common cold,” Moffitt says. “But they are very different and need to be treated differently.”
Arehart agrees. “The flu is a respiratory infection that many people often mistake for a cold. The biggest difference between a cold and the flu is usually the presence of a fever which comes on suddenly.”
According to the CDC people who have the flu often feel some or all of these symptoms:
Fever or chills (although not everyone with the flu will have a fever)
Runny or stuffy nose
Muscle or body aches
Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.
If you have flu-like symptoms, don’t go to work.
“Many times people underestimate how sick they really are and they don’t think about how their decision to go to work can potentially infect others,” Moffitt says. “Testing for the flu can help keep sick employees out of the office. If an employee knows he or she is infected they may be more likely to stay home because they won’t want to infect co-workers.”
Potentially infecting your co-workers isn’t the only hazard of going to work sick.
“You are distracted at work if you aren’t feeling well,” Arehart says. “This could lead to any one of a number of dangerous situations if you work with machinery or with your hands primarily (think bus driver and chef). In a traditional office setting, slipping and falling is one of the most common safety incidents and if you are weak from the flu, you are certainly at higher risk for a misstep.”
Handal says employees almost always feel like their responsibilities and obligations are so important that they are not entitled to even a well-deserved and needed break. “However, we encourage employees to take care of themselves when needed in order to ensure they continually perform their best.”
If you decide calling in sick is the right decision, here’s how to go about it:
Follow your company’s procedure for calling in sick. Find out if you’re required to call HR and/or your immediate supervisor, and contact them immediately, Handal says.
Try to give your employer sufficient notice, if possible. “Employees should make the decision to call in sick as early as possible,” he says. If you’re not feeling well at night, let your supervisor know you might not be able to come in the next day.
Notify your immediate supervisors and managers via e-mail and phone. This ensures the message is received in a timely fashion, he says.
Always notify the people you work with on a daily basis and communicate your list of urgent to-dos. “If there is anything that needs immediate attention while you are out, hopefully your proactive communication will allow for speedy delegation and completion,” he says.
Use the time off to rest and recover. Don’t spend your sick day(s) worrying about work. Allow your body to recover and get well as quickly as possible.
Handal says an employee should always call in sick when the illness is still contagious and his or her productivity will notably decline due to the illness. “If an employee knows the quality of their work will be negatively affected due to their illness, it is best for all parties involved to call in sick.