3 Tips for Open Office Wellness

You know it’s February when the office tissue box runs out. With everyone in close quarters and sniffles making the rounds, it’s easy to dread the cold months where viruses run rampant. The dread intensifies when you work in an open office, where germs can circulate as easily as banter and ideas. But these three tips will help you promote open office wellness, stay healthy, and keep up the good work.

Know the Cold

Most of our lifetime education about disease doesn’t come from people with degrees in microbiology and years of medical experience. No, it comes from conventional wisdom and home cures passed down through the generations. My personal favorite comes from my well-meaning mother-in-law, who once recommended sleeping with sliced onions in my socks to draw out the toxins. My dutiful brother-in-law gave it a try. He didn’t sleep well and woke up the next morning with his cold going as strong as his feet smelled. It’s hard to break free from centuries of conventional wisdom, even with all the knowledge available on the Internet.

So let’s keep it simple: according to Jack M. Gwaltney, MD and Frederick G. Hayden, MD at CommonCold.org, cold viruses live in the nose, especially the noses of children (sorry, parents). An infection can occur when as few as 30 virus particles enter the lining of the nose. The virus then replicates, and 10-12 hours later, the immune system responds with the symptoms of a cold. Symptoms peak at 36-72 hours after infection, but the virus continues to replicate and spread from the moment of infection.

So how do you keep from catching a cold at work when viruses start spreading well before someone calls in sick?

Clean the Surfaces

Viruses can’t replicate outside the human body. But they’re adept at traveling, transferring when people come in contact with contaminated skin or surfaces. From there, they enter the body through the eyes, nose, and mouth. They’re also incredibly hardy, resisting most antibacterial hand lotions. Plus, while your immune response may shorten the duration of your cold, the strength of that response is what determines the strength of the symptoms.

So, the main defense you have against germs is mechanically removing them from the surfaces you come in contact with. This includes wiping down keyboards and light switches at home, washing your hands before you eat, and avoiding touching your face after you come in contact with a contaminated surface.

But the avoidance strategy only goes so far when you work in an open office. You might wash your hands before your working lunch, then touch your keyboard between bites and pick up more viruses before your next bite. Also, every time someone sneezes, the heavier droplets travel at least 20 feet at 100 mph, while the tiniest sneezed-out particles clock in at upwards of 200 mph. Plus, those tiny particles are small enough to get caught up in the air currents, drifting over cubicle walls and through the halls.

To keep the contagion from spreading and promote office wellness, there’s one more step to take.

Clear the Room

Even the strongest sneeze can’t propel viruses from home to office. But many time-off policies don’t factor in the costs contagion has on office wellness, forcing employees to choose between using their accrued time for personal days or healing from an unexpected illness. This balance often tilts toward coming to work sick, leading to a phenomenon known as presenteeism: when employees come to work but lose productivity due to poor physical or mental condition. A study by Virgin Pulse Global Challenge found that while absenteeism costs employees an average of four productive days per year, presenteeism costs them an equivalent of 57.5 working days in wasted hours.

This study includes other causes of presenteeism, such as mental illness and the associated lack of sleep. However, presenteeism due to illness can spread until you have a week with both presenteeism and absenteeism.

We’ve found that a flexible workplace policy works well for handling illnesses. Sick employees don’t have to decide whether they value their upcoming vacation more than their co-workers’ health. If they’re just getting sick, they can choose to work from home during the incubation period. And if their condition worsens and they can’t function, they can use our app to request time off.

When you remove the negative incentives from time off (including the time spent processing last-minute PTO requests), it frees your employees to do the work they can based on the reality of their physical condition. While not all organizations and positions can support working from home, when you do what you can to provide flexibility for sick employees, you preserve productivity.

So whether you decide to implement a new sick-leave policy or just pass these basic facts along to help keep your employees healthy, taking steps toward office wellness pays off, both in productivity and employee performance management.