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Healthy and hygienic winter workplaces

Promoting workplace health: Strategies to minimise illness spread and enhance employee wellbeing 

February, often considered a dreary month, coincides with the peak of flu season. Colds, sore throats, asthma, norovirus, painful joints, heart attacks and flu are noted as being some of the various winter illnesses to watch out for. While the cold weather itself isn’t the direct culprit, its impact on lifestyles, especially in workplaces, plays a significant role in illness transmission. An estimated 185.6 million working days were lost because of sickness or injury in 2022, with minor illnesses (coughs, colds, flu, sickness, nausea, and diarrhoea) being the most common reason for absence, accounting for 29.3% of occurrences.  

Let us discover the numerous factors contributing to illness in workplaces and explore strategies for businesses to minimise the impact. 

Reducing illness spread in the workplace: While cold weather doesn’t directly result in illness, all the time we spend indoors, in close quarters with others, with little or no natural sunlight, and reduced immune systems are the main contributing factors in the spread of illness. The workplace ticks many of these boxes, especially those with air conditioning, which keeps air circulating and can spread airborne diseases.  

This is exacerbated in workplaces where employees are not taking sick leave and reporting to work even when unwell. 

Workplace hygiene matters: A crucial consideration in minimising illness spread is maintaining workplace hygiene. Recent research on workplace hygiene revealed concerning practices, such as employees wearing sweaty clothes, neglecting deodorant use, and inadequate hand hygiene. With 73% of respondents admitting to working while sick, poor hygiene habits and lack of social distancing can accelerate the spread of illnesses, adversely impacting productivity. 

Occupational Health’s role in sickness and absence management: Occupational health plays a pivotal role in supporting businesses in managing sickness and absence effectively. This includes assisting employees in returning to work faster and implementing workplace adjustments to accommodate their absence, as well as their return. By promoting a healthy work environment, businesses can mitigate the impact of illnesses on overall productivity and any possible disruptions to usual business operations.  

A healthy office is everyone’s responsibility, below are some strategies for both employers and employees to contribute to reducing the spread of illness:  

  1. Emphasising cleanliness:  
  • Complete regular and thorough handwashing with warm water and antibacterial soap.  
  • This should be for a minimum of 20 seconds of scrubbing and proper rinsing and drying. 
  • Stress the importance of handwashing after bathroom visits, before food preparation, and before eating. 
  1. Encouraging sick employees to stay home: 
  • Foster a work environment that empowers employees to feel comfortable in staying home until symptoms subside. 
  • Employees should also take personal responsibility and not attend work if they are unwell.  
  • Highlight the risks of presenteeism, emphasising the potential for increased illness transmission. Coming into work unwell has the potential to infect other staff members resulting in even more lost working days due to illness.  
  • Consider offering remote work options, especially for contagious but non-debilitating illnesses. 
  • As soon as an employee is off sick, managers should consult occupational health for strategies that support employees in their return to work after a period of absence.  
  1. Minimising contact in the workplace: 
  • Recommend maintaining distance from colleagues, covering coughs and sneezes with tissues, and using hand sanitiser when handwashing is not possible, particularly after returning to work from sick leave.  
  • Discourage the sharing of utensils and towels to prevent the spread of germs. 
  1. Maintaining clean workspaces: 
  • Provide antibacterial wipes or spray for hot-desking environments. 
  • Educate employees on the importance of cleaning keyboards, desks, mice, and phones regularly. 
  • Encourage a clean, dust-free workspace and discourage eating at desks. 
  1. Promoting a healthy lifestyle: 
  • Emphasise the role of a balanced diet, regular exercise, fresh air, and low-stress levels in bolstering immune systems. 
  • Foster a culture of wellbeing by setting examples, providing information, and displaying reminder posters in communal areas. 
  • With support from occupational health, offer an array of wellbeing workshops and seminars on topics such as sleep and healthy eating to equip employees with practical tools that help strengthen immunity.  

By implementing these strategies and recognising the supportive role of occupational health, businesses can foster a healthier workplace and reduce the number of staff showing up to work unwell; thereby reducing illness transmission, and ultimately enhancing overall employee wellbeing and productivity. 

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