Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:35 pm
It seems that between the flu season and the Avian flu, which started in birds and has the potential to become a worldwide pandemic, people are becoming hypersensitive to their potential exposure to germs. Anyone who has seen the film "Outbreak", starring Dustin Hoffman, can relate to the chain of frightening events that can occur with the spread of an infectious disease. The 1995 film portrays the fear, panic and extreme measures taken to contain an epidemic of a deadly airborne virus. Although the film is a work of fiction, the fear associated with infectious disease is real. It ranges from missing a day of work because of flu to the collapse of civilization and the global economy with the worldwide spread of the deadly Avian flu virus.
My own experience at a recent conference raised the question of what is reasonable caution vs. irrational fear in our attempts to avoid illness. I had one of those "bugs" that started out with mild symptoms and progressed by the hour to a full-blown respiratory flu. In all honesty, I had underestimated my symptoms when I started my day. Although I thought I was being discreet, sneezing and coughing into a tissue, I noticed two young women seated on my left at our table whispering and subtly moving farther away. I really got the hint when, after a breakout session, we returned to our table for lunch and the women guaranteed their distance by placing sweaters and bags on the chair next to them, preventing me from returning to my previous seat.
My awareness of "germ-related fear" was further raised when later at the conference, I ran into a business acquaintance to whom I extended my hand in greeting. Her response surprised me. " I won’t shake your hand," she said. "I have a cold." She then when on to identify the person at her company from whom she was convinced she’d caught the cold. Admittedly, I am a health educator, not an epidemiologist, but the last time I checked, common cold viruses were not floating around with markers that identify their source. Don’t get me wrong. These precautions, in themselves, are not a bad idea. In fact, forgoing handshaking is recommended by some experts as a worthwhile measure during the flu season.
Personally, I would rather shake someone’s hand, benefit from the exchange of greetings, and follow through with good hand washing practices. However, not everyone feels that way. I’m not suggesting we "share the wealth of germs," but to what extent do we carry out these precautions and still maintain a friendly, supportive, and accepting work, community and world environment?
Germs at work
What are reasonable precautions to take to avoid getting sick at work this flu season? Let’s start with a review of facts about the common cold virus. Cold and flu viruses are spread from person to person by respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can be propelled as far as three feet through the air and land on the mouth, nose, or eyes, where they can easily enter the body. Additionally, viruses can live for hours on the surface of objects such as tables, desks, chairs, telephones, keyboards and elevator buttons. You can pick up the virus by touching a contaminated object or person, and then infect yourself by touching your own mouth, nose, or eyes.
Prevention is the key to minimizing flu-related illness.
The role of immunity
The immune system, including the thymus, bone marrow, lymph tissues and white blood cells that protect the body from foreign substances and pathogenic organisms, is our first line of defense against illness. For most of us, an annual bout with the flu is inevitable, but we get through it. People who die from the flu generally have compromised immune systems. Employers can help employees build and protect their immune system by providing information on topics such as eating healthier foods, getting enough rest, managing stress, and taking quality vitamin and mineral supplements.
Vaccination remains a significant method of control, especially for people with compromised immune systems. Flu shots are recommended for those over 65, as well as anyone with a weakened respiratory system, nursing home residents and health care workers who have regular contact with patients. Even with modern vaccination efforts, the flu infects 5 to 20 percent of Americans each year.
If you’re sick … stay home!
People who are sick but think they just can’t leave the job, or they are unwilling to use paid personal time off for illness, help spread flu around the workplace. The concept of Presenteeism, the opposite of absenteeism, is getting a lot of attention these days. Employees who come to work even when they aren’t feeling well may end up costing companies more in lost productivity than if they had just stayed home. If an employee has a fever or significant cough, the most important thing an employer can do is to encourage them to stay home to avoid spreading the illness to everyone else. Twenty-four hours without fever is a good measure to use before returning to work.
Overall, we have done a pretty good job of educating employees about how to stop the spread of germs in the workplace, but the flu season continues to be a challenge.
Prevention and protection
Employers can encourage prevention and protective measures without creating fear and alienation by reminding employees about:
- Staying home until fever-free for 24 hours.
- Avoiding close contact with fellow workers when symptoms begin.
- Covering the mouth and nose with tissue when coughing or sneezing.
- Washing hands regularly and avoid touching your mouth, eyes and nose.