tips to keep your workforce safe and healthy during cold and flu season

If you’ve paid attention to the news recently, you’ve probably heard about coronavirus. Officially named Novel Coronavirus (nCoV), it’s a respiratory illness that originated in Wuhan, China, with the earliest cases reported in January 2020. There have been thousands of confirmed cases of coronavirus and hundreds of deaths, primarily in China. The number of affected people is expected to climb dramatically in the coming weeks. Though coronavirus should be taken seriously, it’s important to note that the majority of fatal cases have occurred in elderly and immunocompromised individuals. Generally, healthy people have a high recovery rate. The symptoms of coronavirus are very similar to the flu. 

Outside of China, cases of coronavirus are just beginning to be confirmed, with most originating in people who have recently travelled to Wuhan. Though Wuhan has put in place a strict travel ban, it’s reported that coronavirus may have an incubation period of up to 14 days, so more cases outside of China are likely to follow. In Canada, several cases of coronavirus have been confirmed so far, contained to Ontario and BC. The individuals (who recently visited Wuhan) have been quarantined and health professionals assure Canadians that the risk to the public remains relatively low. 

Though much of the news coverage surrounding coronavirus has been sensationalized and fear-based, the discussion is a solid reminder to practice good health and safety. As Canadians become aware of the threat of coronavirus, they’re taking precautions to protect themselves, especially in public. As workplaces are one of the primary spaces where people spend time and interact with others, it’s important for employers to know what they can do to support their employees and ensure their health and safety remains top of mind. Though the threat presented by coronavirus is relatively low in Canada, these tips are a good general practice for employers to follow during cold and flu season.

prevention is the best defence

As with most illnesses, prevention is the best way to keep safe. As the Director of Safety and Risk Management at Randstad Canada, this is an issue I take very seriously. Implementing good health and safety practices is essential to protect employees and ensure workplaces remain healthy. Here are practices we follow at Randstad and recommend all companies implement during cold and flu season:

encourage employees to wash their hands frequently

Encourage employees to wash their hands often. This is already standard practice in food-service industries. However, it applies to all workplaces. Good hand-washing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of cold and flu illnesses. Washing hands after going to the restroom and before eating are especially critical. Post hand-washing reminders or educational posters in your restroom to remind employees to thoroughly wash their hands in hot soapy water.

provide alcohol-based sanitizer to employees

Alcohol-based sanitizer is the best type of sanitizer to kill the germs that cause illness. Though hand sanitizer is no replacement for hand washing, it can be a good addition to a healthy hygiene routine. Consider making mini bottles of hand sanitizer available to employees or having a hand sanitizer dispenser in common areas of your workplace such as the lunchroom or lobby. Non-touch sanitizer dispensers (such as motion detection) are ideal.

regularly clean commonly used surfaces

Common or public areas are a breeding ground for cold and flu illnesses. Clean them frequently with anti-bacterial cleaners to curb the spread of germs and viruses. Have a professional cleaning crew regularly clean all surfaces in your workplace. Areas such as lunchroom countertops, doorknobs, coffee machines, and bathrooms that are touched by many people should be cleaned daily. Also, encourage employees to keep their personal workspace (desk, keyboard, etc.) clean.

refrain from handshakes or cheek kisses

In the corporate world, handshaking and cheek kissing are common courtesies, especially for colleagues who may not have seen one another in a while, or are meeting for the first time. However, during cold and flu season, adhering to these niceties can also expose you to an increased risk of contracting a cold or flu. So put a kibosh on these practices. If everyone’s on the same page, it doesn’t have to be awkward. If a handshake is absolutely unavoidable social etiquette in your workplace, remind employees to wash their hands frequently.

be careful when sharing snacks or food in common areas

Contagious illnesses are often picked up in communal areas - that’s doubly true when food is involved. Snack bars and shared food have become a relatively common perk in many workplaces. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with providing snacks to employees, make sure that proper hygiene is used when serving them. Avoid community bowls or large packages employees must reach into with their hands. Instead, opt for individually packaged servings or sanitized serving utensils.

dispose of trash frequently

Empty the trash bins in your workplace frequently. Have a daily routine in place to empty all trash receptacles whether they’re in common areas or individual workspaces. Do not wait until trash bins are ‘full’ to empty them. Trash bins can be a breeding ground for harmful bacteria or mould that can cause or spread employee illness if not cleaned often enough. 

educate employees about good hygiene

Educate and remind employees about good health and safety practices. Though you might think good hygiene should be common sense, don’t take it for granted. There’s no harm in reminding employees about how they can protect themselves from cold and flu illnesses in the workplace. Circulate informational packets or post health and safety information in common areas to reinforce the message. Some common hygiene practices worth reiterating to employees during cold and flu season include:

  • wash hands thoroughly with soap
  • sneeze and cough into a sleeve instead of your hands
  • avoid touching your face
  • always wash hands before eating
  • dispose of tissues immediately
  • wipe down your workspace (desk, keyboard, mouse, etc.) often
  • stay home from work if you’re feeling ill (i.e. fever, sore throat, coughing, difficulty breathing, vomiting, headaches, ear pain) even if you think the symptoms are minor

encourage sick employees to stay home

Presenteeism, or the practice of employees showing up for work when they’re sick, is a common problem for employers. Colds and flus are highly contagious, so when sick employees show up to work, there’s a good chance they’ll spread their illness throughout their workplace, and others will be impacted. This isn’t fair to others, and can cause a drop in overall workplace productivity. 

Two of the most common reasons for presenteeism are: 1) employees may not feel like they can ‘afford’ to take a sick day, especially if they’re paid hourly and do not have paid sick days 2) employees feel pressured by a fast-paced work culture. Taking time away from work to recover from an illness seems like ‘wasted time’. They may be under pressure from their manager or the quantity of their workload. They may fear the repercussions taking sick days will have on their career or it may be a point of pride to ‘work through’ being sick and show how dedicated they are to their job.

Communicating your expectations for sick employees is critical. Here are some ways to ensure sick employees feel comfortable taking time off to recover:

  • Make sure all employees know that if they’re feeling unwell they should stay home and that this is expected.
  • Take the stigma out of being sick. Have no expectations when an employee calls in sick, and never encourage employees to ‘work through’ an illness, even if the illness is a relatively minor one such as cold. Never berate or insult a sick employee for using too much sick time or question if they’re dedicated to their job.
  • Offer paid sick time, especially to hourly employees. Also ensure they feel comfortable using it by not requiring doctors’ notes or other ‘proof’ which can be time-consuming or costly to obtain.
  • Have a ‘work from home’ policy. Allowing employees to work from home can be a good middle ground if an employee doesn’t feel well enough to be at work (or may be contagious) but feels healthy enough to get some tasks done. 

restrict unnecessary travel for work

Coming into contact with people who are sick is the most common means of contracting a cold or flu illness. Public spaces, especially airports, airplanes, buses, and other public transit, where many people are packed into a relatively small space can be incubators for common illnesses such as colds or the flu, and increase your chance of contracting them. Limiting the time spent in airports and other transit systems is generally a good practice during cold and flu season. Employers should make an effort to reduce or cease work travel during cold and flu season to minimize the risks to employees.

As it relates to coronavirus, the vast majority of the reported cases have originated in Wuhan, China. Travel has been the main means of the virus spreading to other countries across the globe. As a result, it’s recommended that organizations limit their employees’ required travel to minimize the chances of coming in contact with affected individuals and spreading the virus back home. Many organizations have put a temporary ban on travel to affected countries, though a total travel ban is the safest route.

keep employees informed

Empower employees with the tools and knowledge they need to protect themselves during cold and flu season. Regularly distribute information about best health and safety practices in the workplace and remind employees about your sick time policies so they know what to do in the event they start to experience symptoms of being sick. 

Though coronavirus hasn’t reached the point of becoming a concern for the public in Canada, make sure that employees are informed ahead of time about your policies should an outbreak occur. Or if you’re implementing new measures such as travel restrictions, clearly communicate what’s changing and why. Informing your workforce early and providing frequent updates will minimize the panic and ensure employees feel safe at work. 

 

Please keep in mind that all the information contained in this article is a guideline only. It is not a substitute for professional advice from medical or workplace health and safety experts. For more information about keeping your workplace healthy during cold and flu season, please refer to these professional associations:

World Health Organization 
Public Health Agency of Canada 
The Public Health Agency of Canada 24-hour hotline: 1-800-454-8302. 

christine beaudry

Director of Safety and Risk Management at Randstad Canada

Christine has over 18 years of experience in human resources, with a specialization in implementing health and safety programs on a national scale. Since 2013, she's been the Director of Safety and Risk Management at Randstad Canada, where she's worked to build a robust health and safety function and ensure employee safety within the organization.