Executive health: Winter of our discontent

Winter enthusiasts tend to be thin on the ground. Forget the crackling of open fires and swish of skis – for most of us, the sounds associated with the season are sniffling, hacking coughs, and the regular beep of ‘home sick today’ messages.
Employers tend to accept absenteeism and reduced productivity as the somewhat inevitable by-products of winter. However there’s plenty we can do in the workplace to combat the spread of ills, chills and flu that will affect headcount and the output of those at work. As always, prevention is better than cure – which means now is good time to put in place strategies to help your business avoid getting bogged down in the colder months.

Get vaccinated
According to the Ministry of Health (MOH), between 10 percent and 20 percent of the population will be infected by seasonal influenza each year. This figure alone offers strong business case for an investment in workplace flu vaccination programme. In general, infection rates start rising in mid May, peak around July/August and drop away by October. The Ministry advises it takes up to two weeks for the vaccine to give full protection, which will last in healthy adults throughout the influenza season.

Go back to basics
One of the simplest, yet most effective methods of minimising the risk of infection is maintaining good hygiene habits in the workplace. The MOH recommends washing hands for at least 20 seconds and then drying them for further 20 seconds – you may wish to consider posting information sheets in bathrooms and kitchens as reminder. Distributing alcohol-based hand rub around the workplace is another easy way for your team to keep bugs and bacteria at bay.
Regular workstation and surface cleaning is another simple way to minimise the risk of infection. In 2001, University of Arizona study of 7000 samples from offices across the US found the average desktop harboured 400 times more bacteria than toilet seat. The top five locations for bacteria were telephones, desktops, drinking fountain handles, microwave doors and computer keyboards.

Stay away
Anecdotally, sick leave has tendency to decrease during tough economic times. With redundancy top of mind, some workers will avoid taking time off in order to be seen as reliable, hard-working and essential to operations. Others will continue to work because leaner workforce means there’s no one to pick up customer demands when they are away.
While it’s important people don’t take advantage of sick leave, those who continue to come into work when ill increase the risk of infecting others. If appropriate, working from home should be encouraged while people are in the recovery phase. It may also be worth investing in developing remote access to work servers or in laptops that can be sent to employees’ homes.

Be prepared for the worst
In recent years, seasonal influenza has taken much more serious turn with the emergence of pandemic flu strains such as swine flu. Despite the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) announcement in 2010 that swine flu had entered post-pandemic period, some countries, including New Zealand, continued to report high levels of the virus. The organisation says continued vigilance is extremely important to prevent serious outbreak. Make sure your workplace is prepared for the potential impact of pandemic event – including the forced closure of business premises – by having regularly reviewed business continuity plan in place.
Key to reducing the impact of any event – be it unforeseen or regular visitor like winter – is preparation. Putting few simple, inexpensive strategies in place early may go long way to avoiding ‘empty office syndrome’ in few months time. M

Peter Tynan is chief executive of Southern Cross Health Society.

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