tips to stay healthy at work during cold and flu season

If you’ve paid attention to the news recently, you’ve probably heard about coronavirus. Officially named COVID-19, it’s a respiratory illness that originated in Wuhan, China, with the earliest cases reported in December 2019. There have been over a hundred thousand confirmed cases of coronavirus and thousands of deaths, primarily in China. The number of affected people is expected to climb 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 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, cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in various Canadian provinces. Infected individuals (the majority of who recently returned from travels) 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 you spend time and interact with others, it’s important to know what you can do to minimize the risk of getting sick and protect yourself at work. Though the threat presented by coronavirus is relatively low in Canada at this time, these tips are generally good practice during cold and flu season.

workplace health and safety coronavirus

practice good hygiene at work

Remember that prevention is the best defence against common illnesses like colds and the flu. Following good hygiene is essential to protect yourself. Here are some recommended practices to implement during cold and flu season:

  • frequently wash your hands with soap
  • sneeze and cough into a tissue or your sleeve instead of your hands
  • avoid touching your face
  • always wash your hands before eating
  • dispose of tissues immediately
  • wipe down your workspace (desk, keyboard, mouse, phone, 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 your symptoms are minor

wash your hands frequently

Wash your hands often. This is already standard practice in food-service industries. However, it applies to all workplaces. Frequent hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of cold and flu illnesses. Washing your hands after going to the restroom and before eating are especially critical. Thoroughly wash your hands in hot soapy water for a minimum of 30 seconds.

use alcohol-based sanitizer

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. Keep a bottle at your desk, or ask your employer to provide sanitizer in the lobby or common areas.

regularly clean surfaces you touch often

Your employer should regularly clean common or public areas with anti-bacterial cleaners to curb the spread of germs and viruses. Areas such as lunchroom countertops, doorknobs, coffee machines, and bathrooms that are touched by many people should be cleaned daily. Also, you should clean your personal workspace (your desk, keyboard, phone, etc.) with anti-bacterial cleaner often.

refrain from handshakes or cheek kisses

In the corporate world, handshaking and cheek kissing are common courtesies, especially if you’re greeting a colleague you haven’t seen in a while, or are meeting for the first time. However, during cold and flu season, adhering to these niceties can 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 job, wash your hands afterward.

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 are a relatively common perk in many workplaces. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with sharing snacks, make sure that proper hygiene is used when serving them. Avoid community bowls or large packages or containers everyone must reach into with their hands. Instead, opt for individually packaged servings or sanitized serving utensils.

stay home from work when you’re sick

Presenteeism, or showing up for work when you’re sick, is a common problem in workplaces. This practice puts all your colleagues at risk. Colds and flus are highly contagious, so when you show up to work sick, there’s a good chance you’ll spread your illness to your colleagues. This isn’t fair to them, and it’s in everyone’s best interest, including yours, that you stay home until you’re feeling better.

Communicate with your employer and understand their expectations for sick employees. Make sure you know what you should do when you’re feeling sick - do you need to call in to inform your manager by a certain time? Or is email notice acceptable? You should know what to do before you get sick. If your employer offers paid sick time, use it; don’t be a hero and try to work through an illness. You have sick days for a reason. Or, if working from home is an option for you, and you feel well enough to get some work done but don’t want to expose your coworkers to your illness, consider staying home and working from there.

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 you spend in airports and other transit systems is generally good practice during cold and flu season. If you can, make an effort to reduce or cease travelling for work during cold and flu season.

As it relates to coronavirus, the vast majority of reported cases originated in Wuhan, China. Travel has been the main means of the virus spreading to other countries across the globe. Restrict travel to minimize the chances of coming in contact with affected individuals and bringing 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.

stay informed

Make sure you have the tools and knowledge to protect yourself during cold and flu season. Ask your employer if they have information available on health and safety practices in your workplace and make sure you understand your workplace’s sick time policies so you know what to do if you experience symptoms of being sick. 

Though coronavirus hasn’t reached the point of becoming a concern for the public in Canada, make sure that you’re informed ahead of time about your company’s policies should an outbreak occur. Or if they’re implementing new measures such as travel restrictions, understand what’s changing and why.

 

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 a medical expert. For more information about staying healthy at work 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.