Dodging the Office Plague

Are your sick co-workers compromising the office by spreading their germs?

By Catherine Shu, published on November 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Every office has its martyrs.

Struck by bronchitis or a head cold, they drag themselves into work, gulp a shot of Dayquil and insist all is well.

Employers should realize that medicated workers can cost the company more money by going to work sick than they would had they stayed home, says Ron Goetzel, director of Cornell University's Institute for Health and Productivity. Workers who clock in while ill cost their employers 20 percent more per day
than employees who take time off. That includes not only the decline in an ill person's performance, but the cost of sick time for co-workers they will likely infect.

For workers who get paid by the hour, staying home with the sniffles is a pipedream. Yet many salaried workers also tough it out. A few tips for staying healthy when colleagues aren't:

Don't assume your office is germ-free even if your company hires a cleaning crew. According to Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, viruses can live for up to three days on phones, water cooler levers and elevator buttons, which should all be cleaned with a disinfectant once a week.

Keep your desk organized. "Nobody cleans their desk because it's a personal space," says Gerba. You should clean your desk once a week, especially if you eat there. Wipe all surfaces with a disinfectant.

Wash your hands. "People who work on computers actually touch their faces a lot," says Elaine Larson, a professor at the Columbia University School of Nursing. Viruses typically enter the body through the eyes, ears and mouth. Wash your hands well a few times per day, or use a gel sanitizer.

Carry tissues. While most cough and sneeze droplets travel less then three feet through the air, Gerba says some viruses can be projected up to 30 feet and can be spread further through air filtration systems. Keeping tissues handy to muffle coughs and sneezes will stop most airborne viruses.

Get enough sleep. Stress can weaken your immune system. A study found flu shots given to sleep-deprived volunteers may take weeks to kick in, leaving the person vulnerable to infection in the meantime.

Practice good hygiene now. People with a cold or flu virus become contagious a day before they begin showing symptoms, and remain contagious until symptoms disappear. Don't wait until one of your colleagues comes to work with a cough to keep your hands and office clean.