Every year, fall heralds the arrival of the dreaded flu season: a long, six-month stretch of coughs, aches, fevers and stuffy noses. But make no mistake — it is far more than a case of the sniffles. It can be very serious business. The flu can be deadly for even healthy individuals, and the CDC estimates that the unusually aggressive 2017-18 flu season saw upwards of 80,000 deaths. That means we all have a stake in preventing its spread and protecting our communities.
While we may come into contact with the flu virus almost anywhere, one of the most common areas we can pick it up is the workplace. Think about it: we work in close quarters with many people every day, and touch common objects like doorknobs and phones. It's easy to see how viruses can spread quickly in that type of environment. In fact, according to a new survey from Staples Business Advantage, more than two in five employed adults report catching the flu last year, 45 percent of whom blame a colleague.
Fear not. There are several simple things you can do to help stop the flu in its tracks and be an office hero, according to Riley Doherty, workplace health and safety expert at Staples Business Advantage. Here are her top 5 recommendations for staying healthy this flu season:
1. Stay home when you're sick, if you can. This is the most important thing you can do to help keep your colleagues healthy, but many people simply don't take enough time off to recover. The CDC reports that people with the flu are most infectious three to four days after symptoms appear, but Staples' survey found that workers who had the flu last year took an average of just 2.7 sick days, and more than half of respondents who've ever had the flu said they came back to work before they felt better. In other words, people are coming back to work right when they are most likely to get others sick.
2. Get vaccinated. The flu vaccine may not be 100 percent effective, as scientists can't predict with absolute certainty which strains of the virus may circulate in any given year. But they still offer important protection, either by preventing illness altogether, or by lessening the impact if you do end up catching the flu. Moreover, not only are you protecting yourself, you're also protecting your coworkers, individuals who are particularly susceptible to the flu, and those who cannot get a flu shot themselves. Staples found that less than half of employees are taking advantage of this simple, widely available prevention method — but getting your vaccine could make all the difference for you, your coworkers and your families.
3. Wash your hands. Frequently. The flu is easily spread through touch. If a sick colleague coughs into their hand and then touches a doorknob, then you touch that doorknob and later absently catch yourself biting your nails, you are at risk of catching the flu. Wash your hands more than you normally would, especially if you've come into contact with a sick coworker. (While you're at it, clean that doorknob with a sanitizing wipe, too.)
4. Avoid sick coworkers. You may not be able to completely isolate yourself from every colleague who sneezes, but you don't need to feel bad about declining to shake their hand or avoiding shutting yourself in an office with them. Sixty percent of respondents in Staples' survey already say they do this — so take a cue from them and find a way to (tactfully) keep your distance.
5. Take care of yourself. A key component in preventing and fighting the flu is taking care of your health and well-being. A strong, healthy individual will have an easier time repelling the virus than those in poor health to begin with. Finding ways to eat right and exercise that align with your unique health needs can go a long way toward staying healthy year-round.
The flu can be rough. If you've had it, you know, and you never want to catch it again. The good news is that over the years, health officials, doctors and scientists have continually found smarter and better ways to combat it. But we have an important role to play, too, and these simple, common-sense steps can help keep your workplace healthy — and keep you from becoming an office pariah.
For more information about preventing the flu in the workplace, visit staplesadvantage.com/fluseason18-19.