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Hear coughing from next cubicle? Protect yourself

By Sarana Schell,
February 15, 2006
Anchorage Daily News

If you cringe at the sound of your co-worker wheezing, hacking and honking into a tissue in the next cubicle while Alaska is still in flu season, read on.

Roslyn Stone knows all about how germs can fly in the workplace. Stone is chief operating officer of Corporate Wellness Inc. in Mount Kisco, N.Y., which acts as a health department for midsize companies nationwide. She is also co-chairwoman of a workplace-health committee for the National Influenza Vaccine Summit, organized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association.

Here is an excerpt of an interview with Stone, in which she discusses the cost of working while sick, why people go to work when they're ailing, and techniques workers can use to keep from spreading their colds.

Q. What's the cost of the flu to employers?

A. The AMA reports that the flu cost $65 per employee or approximately $1 billion a year, from its most recent study in 2000, and the cost of influenza in the workplace continues to rise.

The CDC reports that 36,000 to 51,000 Americans die from the flu each year and there are approximately 200,000 hospitalizations, mostly in young children and seniors.

That is important because the work force today is the Sandwich Generation. We're caring for our children and our parents, and we're exposed more. We're starting to see more serious illness in the work force between 15 and 50.

Q. What are the best ways to keep from catching the flu?

A. Wipe down your desk, phone, keyboard and mouse daily with a disinfecting wipe, not baby wipes: They move the germs around and create a warm, moist environment for their growth. I can't tell you how often we see people using baby wipes.

Wash your hands. Using warm water and any kind of soap is the most effective way to wash. It is the mechanical action that is effective in removing germs, not the product. Most of us don't wash our hands properly because we walk away much too soon. Proper hand washing takes 20 to 24 seconds (singing "Happy Birthday" twice).

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are also effective.

Q. What are the best ways to prevent spreading germs if you're fighting a cold?

A. Stay home if you are sick.

Don't come back to work too soon.

Cover your mouth when you sneeze.

Use tissues, put them in the trash yourself and seal the bag at the end of the day.

Wash your hands frequently (your first, last and best defense).

Use disinfecting wipes on surfaces you touch.

Q. How do people know when they should stay home?

A. Generally, fever is a good guide. Over 100 degrees, and staying home would be advisable. Over 101, and staying home is essential. A sore throat, aches and nausea are other stay-home signs.

Q. How can they tell when they can return to work?

A. You should have a temperature below 100, be able to eat and hold down food and be able to rest enough at night to safely drive to work or operate equipment.

Whether you have a cold or the flu, drinking plenty of fluids will help you get better quicker.

Q. What about coming to work with a cold?

A. It's hard to tell someone to stay home for a cold. They may not feel as badly as they appear to be. There is a huge difference between a cold and the flu. With the flu, you are truly knocked out.

But presenteeism (coming to work sick) may be a large problem for employers. A recent study by Geisinger Health published in the Harvard Business Review said the cost of presenteeism may be as high as $150 billion per year, far more than the cost of absenteeism.

Q. Isn't half an employee better than no employee?

A. As long as you don't operate a nuclear power plant or serve my food.

It costs so much money because people make mistakes, get people around them sick, work more slowly and get injured more frequently.

People go to work sick for a whole host of reasons. They don't want to dump on a co-worker or their boss is gone.

A lot of employers have gone to paid time off, which is both vacation and sick leave.

If you get the flu in January, you may be hesitant to take time off. In December, you may have already used your leave or you may be in your peak business time, in retail for example.

Also, people are much more likely to call in when their kids are sick than when they are. Or if I've already paid for a vacation on Martha's Vineyard in August, I don't want to take time off sick.

It's very complicated and not getting any less complicated.

Q. For companies that you consider most enlightened when it comes to sick leave and healthy workplaces, what policies do they have that you think other employers should copy?

A. Companies that are considered most enlightened encourage employees not to work sick, encourage them not to come back to work before they are better, offer free flu shots to their employees and have absentee and sick-time policies that support this.

They are presently writing pandemic influenza plans and thinking about and learning about avian flu.

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Roslyn Stone has been published or quoted in several hundred publications regarding employee health and wellness issues including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Gannett Newspapers, CNN, MSNBC, the Today Show and on radio programs nationally.