How Not to Get Sick at Work This Winter

Dodge cold and flu germs at the office.

January 17, 2017

Winter is here, bringing with it ice and snow, piles of tax returns—and cold and flu germs. It’s the time of year when the sound of your co-worker sneezing in the next cubicle can fill you with dread. If a bug is sweeping its way through your office, what can you do to improve the chances you won’t get it? We spoke with Emily Sickbert-Bennett, Ph.D., associate director of hospital epidemiology in the University of North Carolina Healthcare System, to find out.

Wash your hands many times a day. Most people become infected with a cold or flu virus after touching contaminated surfaces. Having good hand-washing habits is one of the most important but least-appreciated preventive measures, Sickbert-Bennett said. An often-overlooked step, she said, is washing your hands after blowing your nose.

Antibacterial soap isn’t necessary, Sickbert-Bennett said. All you really need is plain soap and water. An alcohol-based hand sanitizer will do in a pinch.

Nikki Sykora, ‎tax manager at Postlethwaite & Netterville, understands the value of hand-washing. Her three young children bring home germs “all the time.” Even though one of her kids caught pneumonia last year, Sykora stayed healthy—which she credits, in part, to diligent hand-washing.

Clean your workspace surfaces. Use antibacterial wipes to wipe down surfaces at your workspace that can become contaminated, especially high-touch ones such as telephones and computer keyboards, said Sickbert-Bennett. (As Sykora pointed out, in most offices janitors don’t wipe down the desks.)

Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Stress, inadequate sleep, and a poor diet can all weaken the immune system. Brace yourself for flu season by staying in good physical condition. Ashley Cooper, CPA, a tax manager at HoganTaylor, said she prepares for winter by getting seven hours of sleep every night, drinking plenty of water, and taking vitamin supplements.

Follow recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the flu shot. The flu shot is more effective some years than others, Sickbert-Bennett said. “The biggest limitation of the vaccine,” she said, is that it’s formulated a year in advance. “But the flu virus is tricky. It changes, and sometimes dramatically, as in the case of the H1N1,” she noted. (The H1N1 strain, which is also known as swine flu, spread so fast in 2009 that the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic.) If the virus mutates too dramatically, the vaccine may not offer much protection. She recommended reading the CDC’s guidelines on who can benefit from the shot before deciding to get it.

Know when to stay home. Though you may be tempted to go into the office even when you’re sick, it’s usually best for your team if you work from home while you’re contagious. Most diseases are not contagious until you develop overt symptoms such as coughing or sneezing, said Sickbert-Bennett. Definitely stay home if you run a fever, or have diarrhea or vomiting.

Make sure you’re not contagious before returning to work. As a general guideline, be sure you’ve been free of fever for 24 hours before returning to the office. Another guideline to follow is whether you’re still experiencing symptoms such as coughing or sneezing that could cause the spread of microbes. As Sickbert-Bennet noted, “you not only have to have the bacteria or virus present in your body to transmit it to someone else but also a way to transmit it.”

Don’t ignore worsening symptoms. “If you get better and then worse, then you should consider consulting your doctor,” Sickbert-Bennet said.

Know when not to worry. You used the copier right after a co-worker who’s now home sick with the flu—but that doesn’t mean you’re destined for a week in bed.

“Everything you touch can be contaminated, but that doesn’t mean it has a route to make you sick, or that you are a susceptible host to become sick,” Sickbert-Bennett noted. “There is a whole chain of events that has to happen for someone to become ill.”

Editor’s note: Thank you to Dr. John Holly from WakeMed Physician Practices–Brier Creek Medical Group in Raleigh, N.C. for reviewing this article.

Usha Sankar is a Cary, N.C.-based freelance writer and editor. To comment on this story, email associate editor Courtney Vien.

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