Out of Sick Days? Avoid the Office Cold Using These 5 Tactics

by Allison Janse Patient Expert

Hack, wheeze, sniffle, sneeze. What spreads faster than office gossip? The office cold.

"Every day, you run a germ gauntlet getting to work and in your workplace," explains Charles Gerba, Ph.D., microbiologist at the University of Arizona. "Basically, the people before you who were ill laid a germ minefield."

The common cold and the flu will account for tens of millions of sick days this year, which could cost American businesses as much as $8 billion in paid sick leave, according to global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

But workers who come in sick won't save the company any money. The Harvard Business Review estimates that people coming to work sick cost American companies more than $150 billion a year in lost productivity.

Avoid being the sickie at home or the sickie slumped over in your cubicle by being "germ aware."

Know the Germ Hot Spots in Your Office

Since 80 percent of infectious diseases are caused by things you touch in your environment, it's important to know which are the germiest. And where you find those minefields might surprise you. According to a workplace study by Gerba, the five germiest things in a typical office are:

  1. Office phone

  2. Personal Desktop

  3. Computer Keyboard

  4. Microwave Oven Door

  5. Water Fountain Handle

While most people are surprised to learn that their phone and desktop are in fact germier than the office toilet, it makes sense. In most cases, cleaning crews are not allowed to touch personal space, and therefore don't clean desktops and phones, whereas they will disinfect common areas and toilet seats.

More germy places

In addition to the five hot spots, be mindful of other high-touch items, like doctors' office pens, bank teller pens, and (alas) the office candy bowl. Gerba explains, "Based on our studies, we have found that candy bowls are often high in bacteria and sometimes contain fecal bacteria - not everybody washes their hands like they should." At the very least, that knowledge might help curb your afternoon chocolate craving.

Tip #1: Studies show that disinfecting the phone, keyboard, and desktop once a day can kill 99 percent of the germs. This is particularly important if you share a workstation or phone with several people. Disinfecting wipes, like Clorox wipes, work well as do isopropyl rubbing alcohol. Just be sure to use the products as directed; if not, you could just be wiping the germs around instead of wiping them out. It's also a good idea to run it by your IT department, too.

Tip #2: Beware of Office Germ Spreaders. Besides cleaning up your own space, you may want to avoid the sickies who come to work instead of recover at home. Close your door on the offending sneezer. Opt for the aisle seat during meetings so you're not trapped in the middle of two sickies. Also try to snag the seat farthest away from the person with the raging cold, since a sneeze can travel up to three feet.

Tip #3: Keep Your Hand Sanitizer Handy. While hand-washing is the number one thing you can do to keep yourself healthy, it's not always possible when you can't leave your station during a shift, especially if you have a job where you're constantly coming into contact with people. In that case, a small bottle of instant hand sanitizer will be just as effective. Choose from organic options like Burt's Bees Aloe & Witch Hazel (burtsbees.com) or EO biodegradable hand wipes (www.eoproducts.com) or other brands like Purell (www.gojo.com) or Germ-X (www.germx.com).

Tip #4: Make a Concerted Effort Not to Touch Your Face. The average adult touches their face one to three times every five minutes. Any time you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, you're essentially giving germs a free ride into your body. Try to find a new nervous habit.

Tip #5: Stash an Emergency Health Kit at Your Desk. Whether you swear by Airborne, vitamin C, or zinc lozenges, keep whatever you need to boost your immune system at your desk. Since most people work for eight hours or longer, you might just be able to nip an oncoming cold in the bud before it strikes.

And, if these tactics pay off, you might just have a few sick days left over when the spring comes.

Allison Janse
Meet Our Writer
Allison Janse

Allison wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Allergies, Asthma, and Cold & Flu.