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Whether it’s sitting next to a sneezing colleague or using the same office equipment as someone who really should be resting at home, it doesn’t take much for viruses to spread quickly through the office.
The 2018 flu season is one of the worst on record, with federal health officials saying the U.S. is on track to reach a record number of flu-related illnesses.
Yet the workplace can actually play a prime role in prevention. “With smart office design, cleaning procedures and education campaigns, companies can ensure the workplace is safer for employees,” says Bob Best, who leads JLL’s Health, Safety, Security & Environmental division.
From hands-free to germ-free
When people in close proximity pick up telephone receivers, touch door handles or use communal computer equipment, they end up sharing germs. In fact, office buildings can be more contagious than hospitals, with more than 73 percent of employees reporting that they caught an illness after a coworker showed up sick, according to office supplies retailer Staples.
One recent study estimates that working adults touch up to 30 objects per second that may be contaminated with infectious diseases. Thus, an important way to protect people from the spread of the flu is to install no-touch devices, says Best.
Offices, for example, can be equipped with electronic-sensor trash receptacles that open at the wave of a hand. Equally, there are many models of faucets and machine dispensing paper towels that are activated by sensors rather than by touch. And installing hand sanitizer dispensers near doors and in common areas like break rooms is a good prevention technique, but it is more effective if the dispensers don’t require the push of a lever.
A building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system also has a role to play. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends changing HVAC system filters more often during a flu outbreak so that the airflow isn’t recycling germs.
“All buildings are required to bring in fresh air, but the cleaner companies keep the office air, the better it is for employee health and productivity,” Best says.
Achieving the ideal ventilation rate costs roughly $40 per person per year, according to Best, while the return on investment is closer to $6,500 per person per year, according to a 2015 Harvard study on indoor air quality.
Prevention begins with design, and modern offices often incorporate surfaces that are easy to clean, such as solid countertops in a breakroom rather than germ-trapping tile and grout.
However, even the most ideal surfaces require ongoing maintenance. “Germs can last on surfaces for up to 72 hours, making it incredibly easy for people to pick up the virus — even after an office has been closed for a weekend,” says Best.
For landlords and building management companies, hiring a responsive office cleaning crew with attention to detail is a good first line of defense, Best says.
“Meet with the cleaning crews as flu season sets in,” Best says, “to ensure they are paying close attention to disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, like door handles and telephone receivers.”
Employees can also play their part – if companies make it convenient to disinfect throughout the day.
“Placing hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes on every desk allows employees to quickly wipe down the surfaces they touch,” Best says. “Doing a ‘quick clean’ at regular intervals, including when they arrive and before they leave every day, can go a long way toward prevention.”
When companies communicate clearly with employees, it fuels a collective effort to fight the flu. Best finds that good old-fashioned signage, like a “wash your hands” poster near a breakroom sink, can convey an uncomplicated message in a surprisingly effective way.
More modern conventions, such as mass emails, can be used to alert employees to a flu outbreak. These messages also can be used to encourage healthy behavior that can help fight the flu, like sending reminders to eat the fresh fruit offered in the employee lounge.
The JLL Safe&Secure app, for example, sends daily or as-needed text messages that remind employees to do everything from disinfect work surfaces to stay home if they’re under the weather.
“It’s important that companies find ways to continually integrate health and safety messages into the everyday lives of employees,” Best says. “By giving them mobile access to information, companies can better equip and protect them.”
Indeed, investing in preventive measures can often be a more cost-effective choice for companies in the long-term.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that absenteeism results in annual productivity losses in the United States of about US$225.8 billion, or US$1,685 for each employee.
One option is to offer flu shots at no cost to employees. Academic researchers found that for every $35 a company invested in flu shots, it saved up to $1,500 on lost employee work time. “That’s a pretty good return on investment,” says Best.
While no measures will ever make an office completely germ-free, installing touch-free equipment and encouraging good hygiene habits can go a long way in fostering a healthier – and more productive – workforce.