Almost everyone has had the flu before. Incessant coughing, a sore throat and body aches are the pits, especially when you have obligations and deadlines to meet. But now, as the H1N1 virus threatens to infect people everywhere, it's even more important to try to stay healthy.
It's hard to do so, however, especially at work. Commuting via public transportation, pressing dirty elevator buttons, opening infected doors, reaching your hand into a co-worker's candy bowl and even using someone else's telephone or computer could expose you to germs.
A recent study by the authors of "Influencer," a book on behavior change, found that most people don't even know how to encourage themselves or others to do something as simple as wash their hands. According to the study:
- One in five adults don't wash their hands after using the restroom
- Only 15 percent of adults wash their hands after coughing or sneezing
- Three out of four adults don't wash their hands before eating
These statistics support the fact that spreading germs is easy -- especially at work.
"Influenza virus particles are carried up to six feet in the mucous drops produced by sneezing and coughing," says Dr. Margaret Lewin, medical director of Cinergy Health. "If the ill person coughs into his hand, that hand will transfer infectious viral particles to any object touched such as doorknobs, banisters and elevator buttons. Another person touching that surface and then touching his face will transfer viral particles to his respiratory tract. If the ill person coughs into his sleeve or a tissue, which is immediately thrown away, few of these particles reach other people."
Although workers are undoubtedly aware of how germs spread, it seems that they aren't doing their best to stop it. Donna Haugland, chief nursing officer for CVS MinuteClinic, says that the economy is not only causing some workers to not call in sick for fear of repercussions, but it is also contributing to the actual sickness.
"Workers are feeling much more pressure at work with longer hours, taking more work home and giving up much-needed vacation time. The added stress leads to bad lifestyle habits such as poor sleep and nutrition. This weakens workers' immune systems and puts them at higher risk for getting the flu," Haugland says.
"If you're in a supervisory position, make sure your employees know they will not be penalized if they are infected with the flu and choose to stay home. A sick or infected employee leads to mistakes and poor work performance. And if he or she spreads the flu within the office and others are infected, it can have severe impact on total office productivity."
Stop the spread
Of course, the best way to halt the spread of germs and keep the office running smoothly is to stay at home when you're sick. But sometimes, deadlines must be met and meetings must be held, no matter what's going on in your immune system.
If you're sick but think you just can't miss a day at work, Haugland suggests considering whether you can do your job at home. If not, find a way to do your job in the office while avoiding contact with others as much as possible. Work in a closed room, or consider wearing a mask to prevent respiratory droplets from spreading to others.
Lewin also suggests avoiding "high risk" areas or situations where you have close physical contact with others, such as meetings, elevators, bathrooms and lunchrooms. You should also be careful in areas where you share equipment with others, such as microwave ovens, refrigerator handles, vending machine buttons, telephones and computer keyboards.
As with any illness, prevention is crucial. Experts advise workers to get flu vaccines, when possible. In the meantime, however, Lewin and Haugland offer workers these 10 tips to stay healthy and lessen the spread of germs in your office:
1. If you know you're sick with the flu or another contagious illness, stay home whenever possible.
2. Get plenty of rest and eat a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables. Proper nutrition helps to keep your immune system strong.
3. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and discard the tissue in the trash.
4. Cough or sneeze into your elbow, not your hands, when a tissue is not available.
5. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers and chlorine wipes and learn how and when to use them properly.
6. Minimize the need to interact face-to-face with your co-workers by using interoffice e-mail or hosting telephone conferences. Have meetings with boxed lunches, for example, rather than a buffet.
7. Refrain from touching your eyes, nose or mouth to minimize your exposure to viruses.
8. Health professionals advise getting vaccinated to defend yourself against various flu strains.
9. Try to keep yourself and your co-workers at least three feet from each other, but preferably more than six feet. If possible, split shifts to decrease the number of workers in close proximity at any given time.
10. Review your office sick policies and make adjustments as needed. Talk with your boss to ensure that you will not be penalized for staying home until you recover from the flu, or whatever illness you've contracted.