By: Phil Kendall
The days are getting shorter and the leaves on the trees are turning red. That’s great news for those of us with a soft spot for Christmas, but it also means that the dreaded cold and flu season will soon be upon us.
According to the Office for National Statistics, coughs and colds account for almost 30% of the sick-days taken in the UK. It clearly pays, then, to help your team dodge as many bugs as much as possible — or at least lessen their spread throughout your workplace.
With that in mind, here are our top ten tips for making your office a germ-free zone this cold and flu season.
Whether it’s a common cold or full-blown influenza, prevention is always cheaper than the cure. You’ll never be able to keep 100% of the winter bugs out of your workplace, but it’s a good idea to encourage your team to use hand sanitiser the moment they arrive at work during cold and flu season.
You could always supply your staff with individual bottles of hand sanitiser to keep at their desks, but it’s cheaper and easier to keep a large bottle of alcohol spray (it’s less sticky than gel) near the door or in your reception area, and ask your staff to use it whenever they pass by.
This is especially important for those of your team who come to work via public transport, as they’re much more likely to come into contact with germs and viruses during their commute and bring them into work with them.
You could also set up hand-sanitising stations around your office (the kitchen or main hallway, for example) for people to use throughout the day in order to keep those nasty bugs at bay.
You’ve probably heard that the typical office keyboard is home to more germs than the average toilet. That’s never truer than during cold and flu season, with our keyboards quickly becoming veritable hives for microscopic beasties, just waiting to take us out.
Banish those bugs before they can breed by providing your staff with alcohol or antibacterial wipes to use on their touchscreens, keyboards and computer mice during the winter months. If you’re concerned that your staff will forget to use them, consider handing them out at a particular time each day (shortly before lunch is a safe bet) so that your entire office goes through the same mini cleansing ritual.
Speaking of wiping things down, there’s a good chance that you already have a handful of germ hotspots around your office, spreading germs to even your most cautious and hygienic team members.
The majority of colds and flu are spread through contact, whether it’s direct (shaking hands, kissing etc) or indirect (touching things that those carrying the germs have touched) and then touching one’s own mouth, nose or eyes. Unless your team is particularly affectionate, it’s the latter that poses the greatest threat to your business.
Take a quick look around your office. Think about things like:
All of these objects are touched or handled on a daily basis, often by your entire team. It’s rare, however, that anyone takes the time to disinfect them.
Make it your mission to clean these areas with antibacterial cloths or spray at least once a day during the winter months to prevent them from turning into veritable pick-up points for colds, flu and stomach bugs.
You want your staff to be comfortable during the colder months, but the downside to cranking up the heat is that the air tends to become dry.
As well as increasing the chances of giving yourself a static shock every time you so much as look at something metallic or made of nylon, dry air in the office can make us more susceptible to colds and flu as our cilia (those tiny hairs inside your nose) dry out and become less able to catch those nasty germs before they enter the body.
Sore throats, cracked lips and dry eyes, too, are common complaints amongst staff during winter, and are only exacerbated by the fact that the air in our workplaces is so dry.
The good news is that a simple humidifier can help combat all of these problems. As well as making your staff generally more comfortable, increasing the humidity in your office could actually help reduce the overall spread of germs, with research suggesting that flu viruses are less able to survive and be transmitted from person to person when humidity levels are higher.
Keep your team hydrated (tea, anyone?) and crank up the humidity every time you turn up the temperature.
You could always encourage your team to visit their GP and get a quick flu shot when winter rolls around, but it might be easier to arrange for a medical professional to visit your workplace and provide your entire team with their winter flu jab.
Private healthcare providers like BUPA and UK pharmacies such as Boots and Lloyds Pharmacy offer various services including flu clinics at your workplace and even free vaccination sessions, meaning that you can get your entire team ready for flu season in one fell swoop.
We were all taught as children that coughs and sneezes spread diseases, but coughing into your hand is almost as bad as coughing directly into a rapidly spinning desk fan.
Check out this funny but informative video about the ‘vampire cough’ — and perhaps consider sharing it with your coworkers this flu season.
Keep your team stocked with tissues that they can grab the second they feel a cough or sneeze coming. Otherwise, tell them all to follow the vampire’s lead and direct their germs into their armpit rather than their hands.
The thing about coughs and colds is that, even when we start to feel well enough to return to work, we’re often still contagious.
It’s understandable that managers will want their staff back as soon as possible, but by inviting someone who’s ‘over the worst’ to return the office you risk losing more of your team to the same illness soon after.
Rather than allowing them to come back as soon as they feel able to perform day-to-day activities, consider asking any employees to work remotely for a couple of days — or at least until they’re no longer coughing or sneezing — if they offer to return if they’re still feeling less than stellar.
The idea of staff working from home might seem scary at first (how do you know they’re not just sitting on Facebook all day!?), but there are various tools and technologies you can use to keep an eye on your employee’s progress and keep in touch throughout the day. Check out our guide to managing remote workers efficiently to learn more.
While we’re on the subject of returning to work, it’s important that your employee handbook clearly outlines the criteria for taking sick leave and returning to work following illness.
As a manager or team leader, it’s your responsibility to ensure that your team take the sick days they’re entitled to. Competition between staff and a desire to be seen as a team player can lead to staff soldiering on for longer than they should, coughing and spluttering through their day when they should really be at home in bed — and not spreading their germs with the entire office.
Encourage your staff to take sick leave when they need it, and streamline the process for calling in sick. It’s easy to spot when people are pulling sickies and aren’t actually ill, so don’t be coy about sending poorly people home — sometimes all they’re waiting for is your blessing.
Thinking back to those germ-infested keyboards we mentioned earlier, how would you feel if your boss randomly switched everyone’s computer hardware every morning during flu season?
Hot-desking, wherein staff sit at any desk or terminal they like, became popular a few years ago and is especially common in places like call centres. It certainly has its advantages, but during flu season especially it’s really not recommended.
As well as encouraging your team to keep their workspaces clean, ask them to stick to their own desks and equipment unless absolutely necessary. That way, if any germs do make it through your defenses, their spread will be fairly limited.
It might sound like a bit of a cop-out in a list of ways to combat colds and flu in the workplace, but the fact remains that happy, well-rested employees are less likely to fall ill to begin with.
Employees who use up their full allowance of paid leave — not to mention book well before the end of the year — tend to be more productive. The companies they belong to, meanwhile, suffer fewer unexpected staff shortages and are generally happier places to be, with lower turnover.
Lead by example: book those holidays early and build up your immune system well before winter!