Achoo! Cold and Flu Season in the Office: How to Stay Healthy

April 09, 2019

Man sick at work
Ben Eubanks

During the summer, preventing cold and flu in the workplace seems like a low priority; however, in the midst of cold and flu season, employers everywhere are looking for ways to prevent the spread of germs and keep workers healthy and productive. In this article we'll not only offer some practical suggestions to do just that, but we'll also offer some sound science on common questions to help employers make the right decisions about worker health and safety.

Flu Safety in the Workplace

Look around you. For every 10 people in your workplace, statistics say that one or two of them will get the flu this season. Additionally, WebMD says that almost 200,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized because of complications from the flu every year. The flu is no laughing matter, obviously, but how can employers go about preventing cold and flu in the workplace? Here are four practical ideas that employers can share with their staff:

  1. The first step is defense. The more people that have the flu vaccine, the better your chances of staving off the illness. According to the U.S. government, insurance plans compliant with the Affordable Care Act will cover flu shots and common vaccines without the need for copayment or coinsurance. Remember, there's a 20 percent chance that any individual person might get the flu, so this reduces that chance drastically. Some employers even incentivize workers to get their flu vaccine, which may be a helpful idea to drive the right behaviors.
  2. Handwashing has long been known to be an effective method for eliminating germs, but hand sanitizer is often seen as a suitable substitute. When it comes to cold and flu, both methods work equally well, but it's important to use sanitizer as directed by the Centers for Disease Control, because failing to do so may decrease its effectiveness. It's worth noting that sanitizer doesn't work as well on hands that are dirty or greasy, but otherwise clean hands can benefit from the universal access of hand sanitizer around the clock. Setting up stations at key places in your business can help remind workers to use it regularly.
  3. Take a sick day. Often times workers feel pressured to come in to work even if they are not feeling well. Employers should encourage them to take the necessary days off to get well, but it's important to remember that flu-ridden adults can be contagious for more than a week, even if they are feeling better. Just because someone is back at work doesn't mean they are not spreading germs. Alternatively, exploring remote working options or work-from-home options during peak sickness times, if that fits your workplace, can be helpful to decrease the spread of germs.
  4. Health insurance can support a few needs, and flexible spending accounts (FSAs) are another boost if you need additional funds to fight the cold or flu. For instance, if you get a prescription for over the counter cold or flu remedies, your FSA funds can help cover those costs, according to FSAStore. Additionally, doctors can prescribe Tamiflu if you get to the physician early enough in your illness, which can reduce symptom duration by a day or two.

It's important to remember that we simply don't know if someone we're around is sick or not. When you are around a visibly sick individual, you're probably more likely to wash your hands, use sanitizer and steer clear of touching their work surfaces. During cold and flu season, it may be best to assume that everyone around you is sick or carrying germs to some degree, if that helps to encourage the right preventive behaviors.

Preventing Cold and Flu in the Workplace: Dispelling Myths

Strangely, many people who skip out on a flu shot or who don't do a good job of washing their hands appropriately may use some of the over-the-counter "cold prevention" options like Airborne and Emergen-C. These types of supplements are not governed by the Food and Drug Administration, and a wide variety of studies have shown that they do not work, according to Forbes, Mayo Clinic and other reputable sources.

The key ingredient in those supplements is zinc. While there have been studies that show taking zinc regularly can reduce colds, it doesn't help with prevention. It can help reduce the duration from six days to five days, for instance, but the person is still contagious. From a practical standpoint, the worst thing about these kinds of supplements is that they may encourage people to skip more common sense methods for disease prevention, such as hand washing, because they perceive themselves to be safe from germs.

The bottom line here is that employers can play a key part in educating workers about what works and what doesn't in cold and flu prevention. Flu safety in the workplace is about more than just taking a sick day when you're not feeling well: A more holistic approach may reduce the chances of the people on your team getting sick at all during the next cold and flu season.

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