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Most employees go into work when they’re sick – so how can you protect your office from the flu this winter?

By: Dr Brad McKay

A new study [1] conducted by YouGov Research Services and commissioned by Heinz has shown that two out of three Australian workers are putting their colleagues, customers, and others at risk by going into work when they are sick this winter. It showed that more than half of Australian workers (58 per cent) say they have to be really sick to take a day off work, even though they are entitled to 10 days [2] of sick leave each year.

As a medical professional, these statistics are alarming given we are in the midst of a record-breaking flu season. Latest influenza statistics [3] show that flu cases were more than 20 times higher in June 2019 compared with June 2018. We’re now bracing ourselves for August and September, when the number of Australians diagnosed with influenza typically peaks.

Your staff members who have heart disease, lung disease (like asthma), and diabetes are more likely to have a severe infection. Pregnant women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are also more likely to be severely affected by the virus. Influenza is potentially fatal, so it’s important to protect yourself and your staff from infection.

Australians are hard workers and keen to get to the office, even if it’s a struggle to simply get out of bed. Dedicated teammates commonly get caught up in the momentum of work life and ignore what their body is telling them, but it’s important to take a step back and look after your health and the health of others around you.

This winter, we need to work together as a community to limit the spread of influenza. Business managers and team leaders are encouraged to be strategic and ensure their staff stay home if they’re feeling unwell, to prevent respiratory viruses from circulating around the office.

Here are my top tips for keeping the office flu-free this winter.

  1. Take it easy

Create a workplace where the health of your staff members is given priority. Give your colleagues permission to take it easy when they’re struggling with the flu.

  1. Nominate ‘Flu Spotters’

To facilitate this, nominate team members to be ‘Flu Spotters’, looking out for people who turn up to work when they’re sick.

It’s not a ‘Flu Spotters’ job to have an authoritarian presence and send people home – we’re all adults here – but to have friendly chats with people who might be sick but are just putting on a brave face.

Sometimes all it takes is a gentle nudge to encourage others to look after themselves. Handing out a box of tissues, some throat lozenges, or a can of chicken soup can be enough to help people recognise that they really should be at home.

We put more pressure on ourselves to keep working, than we do others. Recent research commissioned by Heinz suggests that four in five Australian workers encourage colleagues to go home when they’re feeling unwell, but only one in three Australians plan to keep themselves at home when they’re feeling sick.

But it’s a waste of time turning up to work when you’re sick – in fact, it’s estimated that the total cost of presenteeism (a sick employee coming into work) to the Australian economy is approximately $34 billion each year [4].

  1. Care packages

Home comforts are an important part of your recovery from the flu and soup is Australia’s number one comfort food when we’re unwell [5].

Slipping into your favourite ugg boots, putting your feet up on the couch, and sipping a warm bowl of soup is like absolute heaven when you feel like hell.

So if you see a staff member sneezing around the office, running a fever, and blowing their nose every five minutes, send them home with some chicken soup. Sometimes we just need a bit of permission before we allow ourselves to focus on getting better.

  1. Give guidance

Everyone feels guilty when we take even a day off work, but we often need more time to recover.

It’s best to give some guidance to your staff and advise them, as a rough rule of thumb, to stay away from work for 2-3 days when they’ve got a head cold and consider taking at least a week away from work if they develop influenza.

Healthcare workers and food handlers may need to take even more time away from work, because they have much greater risk of spreading infection, especially to people whose health is already fragile.

  1. Targeted cleaning

Common cold and flu viruses spread through the air when someone sneezes or coughs, but we forget that these viruses are also transmitted via touching hard surfaces.

Coughing and sneezing releases viral particles into the air for a few hours, but viruses can remain alive for up to 24 hours on hard surfaces like door handles, taps, hand rails, switches, elevator buttons, and everywhere around the staff kitchen.

If your office has regular cleaners during the day, instruct them to target their cleaning while the office is in use. Regularly wipe down door handles and other surfaces that are regularly touched by human hands.

  1. Wash your hands

Remind your staff that their chance of catching flu can be decreased by regularly washing their hands with soap and water.

We all think we’re great at washing our hands, but in reality, we’re all pretty bad at it. Around the world, medical clinics and hospitals remind healthcare professionals to wash their hands properly by displaying instructional posters near the wash basins.

You can easily download a free poster from the World Health Organization (WHO) website, laminate it, and display it near your work sink. If it’s good enough for a hospital, it’s good enough for your office.

  1. Back up antiseptic gel

Washing your hands with soap and water is the best option, but when your staff are away from the office, they can use antiseptic gel as back up. It’s especially useful after using public transport.

  1. It’s not too late to get vaccinated

Overall, the best way to protect yourself from influenza is to get vaccinated every year.

Health professionals are hired around the country every year to provide flu vaccination clinics at workplaces. This encourages your staff to get vaccinated against influenza by making the vaccine easily accessible. It not only stimulates your immune system to provide you with protection against the flu, but also stimulates conversation in the workplace about how to fight flu and instigate these steps.

Flu season will hopefully be over by September, but influenza will keep causing illness all the way to the end of the year, and beyond, so it’s not too late to get vaccinated.

The vaccine covers 3-4 different types of influenza virus, so it offers protection against multiple strains. It takes about two weeks for the flu vaccine to stimulate your immune system and provide protection.

We’re expecting 2019 to be the worst and potentially longest flu season we’ve seen in years, so it’s time to remind your staff about influenza. It’s time for us all to work together to create flu-free environments at work.

[1]The Heinz Soup When You’re Sick Survey – Commissioned by Heinz and conducted by independent YouGov Research Services. Completed in May 2019.




[5]The Heinz Soup When You’re Sick Survey – Commissioned by Heinz and conducted by independent YouGov Research Services. Completed in May 2019.

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Loren Webb

Loren Webb

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