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Flu Virus Set to Make Workers, Businesses Ill This Season

Nov. 16, 2012 — Nearly 80% of office workers polled come to work even when they know they’re sick, according to the third annual "Flu Season Survey" from Staples. This is an increase of 20% over last year. For those who stay home, more than two-thirds return to work when they are still contagious.

In a typical year, the flu virus is responsible for about 70 million missed workdays and an estimated $10 billion in lost office productivity. Survey results also show that employees could do more to keep the workplace healthy: half of office workers don't clean their workspaces regularly and are unaware of the dirtiest surfaces in the office.

According to the survey data, office workers continue making avoidable mistakes that fuel the spread of germs:

  • 51% of employees only clean their desks once a week or less, even though germs can live on surfaces for up to three days, especially on the keyboard — typically one of the dirtiest personal workspace items.
  • 25% believe that door knobs/handles are the dirtiest places in the office, while only 6% recognize that the break room sink is actually the dirtiest, followed by the office microwave, which only 8% selected.
  • 65% feel the number of days necessary to be out of the office with the flue is one to three days and often return to work contagious, as the flu may be contagious for one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick.

Survey findings also revealed that nearly half of workers cited their concern about completing their work as the reason they don't stay home sick. More than a quarter of respondents come to work to avoid using a sick day, even though a majority of those surveyed indicated their average productivity level while sick was only around 50%.

The task of maintaining a healthy work environment is increasingly falling to facility managers (FMs) and building service contractors. Staples separately surveyed this group to determine challenges faced during flu season. The discrepancies between office workers and FMs indicate confusion over who is responsible for cleaning when it comes to flu prevention in the workplace.

Results revealed that almost 40% of FMs and their staff are not responsible for cleaning occupants’ personal workspaces. More than half of respondents answered they barely increase the time spent cleaning (between 0% and 10% more of their time) during flu season. According to FMs, some of the top challenges in keeping a building clean and health are:

  • More employees working in the same or smaller space (53%)
  • Not enough staff to clean adequately (46%)
  • A decrease in budget for cleaning products (21%), with half of respondents citing that they are unable to provide hand sanitizer and 40% unable to provide tissues for employees.

However, survey results revealed that nearly half of all respondents believed they would need less than a 10% budget increase to adequately address germ control in their buildings. Currently, more than 50% of FMs aren't ordering cleaning and disinfecting chemicals.

Staples offered a few steps to help maintain a healthier work environment:

  • Offer/encourage a telework program: Employers may want to consider implementing telework — or encourage use of an existing program — as a way to help address employees coming to the office when sick. Of those respondents whose company offers a telework option, nearly half take advantage of the option when sick to avoid spreading germs in the office.
  • Stock up: Nearly half of office workers surveyed request specific items be provided by employers, such as sanitizing wipes, touch-free restroom fixtures, waterless hand sanitizers and antibacterial soap in restrooms and break rooms. Survey results show break rooms need special attention, as most workers aren't aware of the hidden germs there.
  • Educate: The similarities between last year's survey results and this year's indicate that office workers are still unsure how to best fight the flu. Educate staff about how often to clean their desks, how long they should stay home when sick, and crucial areas in the office that need to be frequently disinfected.

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