Calling in sick - bad hygiene at work

25th of November 2015
Calling in sick - bad hygiene at work

The workplace is a breeding ground for bacteria and any contagion will quickly spread in a busy office, institution or factory. Ann Laffeaty looks at the implications of an outbreak at work and asks whether employers and staff could be doing anything more to keep their workplace safe.

Anyone who works in an office will recognise the scenario. One person sneezes during a meeting, then another blows their nose. Within a week virtually half the office is incapacitated. Several members of staff will by now have called in sick while the rest of them struggle on, working under par while trying to do the job of several absent colleagues.

Infections and viruses can spread very rapidly in the workplace. Some scientists claim colds are more prevalent in winter because people spend more time huddled together inside. If that is indeed the case, it is no wonder that the unnatural surroundings of workplaces where people remain cooped up together for eight hours at a time are a hotbed for germs.

Many illnesses spread rapidly via communal touch points. Research carried out by a team at the University of Arizona in 2014 revealed that infections and viruses can be spread from a single office door handle to more than half the workforce in just two hours. The research involved researchers planting a harmless bug with similar properties to Norovirus on an office doorknob at the beginning of a working day.

They then sampled other surfaces such as light switches, lift-push buttons, coffee pots, taps and computers at two-hourly intervals. The study revealed that up to 60 per cent of the workforce in the building had been contaminated by the ‘bug’ in just two hours.

A previous study carried out by Initial Washroom Hygiene in 2012 revealed the average computer mouse at work harboured three times as many bacteria as a toilet seat. Researchers at Initial, which tested 150 separate items in 40 workstations, attributed the results to workers eating lunch at their desks while using their other hand to surf the web. This was said to effectively turn workstations into germ breeding grounds.

And a third study staged by consumer organisation Which? in 2012 revealed that computer keyboards can harbour more germs than a toilet seat. Keyboards at the London offices of Which? were swabbed for E.coli, coliforms, staphylococcus aureus and enterobacteria. Of the 33 keyboards tested, four were regarded as potential health hazards and one harboured five times as many germs as one of the office’s toilet seats.

The takeaway from these studies is that commonly-touched surfaces in offices can be major contamination points for the spread of disease. Or maybe it is simply that workplace washrooms are surprisingly clean?

Breeding grounds for bacteria

Toilets tend to be cleaned more regularly than other areas of the office. This is because washrooms are generally considered to be breeding grounds for bacteria and it is also important to keep supplies of consumables such as toilet rolls and soap topped up. But not all washroom visitors wash their hands, and anyone who leaves the toilet without having done so will quickly contaminate other parts of the workplace.

Other commonly-touched surfaces such as light switches, telephones, microwave handles, water fountains, keyboards, paper files and door handles tend to be cleaned much less frequently – if ever. This means they may present worryingly high levels of contamination.

So-called ‘Sick Building Syndrome’ may also be a factor in causing people to become ill at work. The term was first coined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1986 after people in the UK and Denmark reported symptoms such as headaches, nausea, dizziness and poor concentration that seemed to be linked to working in modern office buildings.

Flaws in the Sick Building Syndrome theory were revealed in two subsequent Swedish and Danish studies, and the term has become less widely used over recent years. But Sick Building Syndrome is still a recognised concern, certainly with the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) which claims poor standards of cleanliness in the working environment and contact with airborne particles such as dust and fungal spores to be two of the potential risk factors.

The implications of failing to curb the spread of illness in the workplace can be dramatic.  A recent study by professional services firm PWC revealed that Western European employees take an average of 7.3 days off work each year, with UK staff being the most likely to call in sick.

Employees in the UK take an average of 9.1 days off each year – almost double the number of days taken by US workers (4.9 days) and four times as many as their Asia-Pacific counterparts (2.2 days). One theory as to why Europeans take off a relatively high number of sick days could be because more of them receive sick leave than employees in the US and Asia-Pacific regions.

Meanwhile, the global population is ageing and people are retiring later. This means older, more vulnerable people are populating our offices and are potentially more likely to be floored by that office bug.

And the cost of this absenteeism is phenomenal. PWC estimates that the cost to businesses in the UK alone is nearly £29 billion (39.7 billion euros) a year.

While the US absenteeism figures may appear admirably low compared with those of their UK counterparts, American employees are not actually avoiding workplace illnesses. In fact ‘presenteeism’ -  or turning up at work while feeling ill and under par – is becoming increasingly recognised by companies as a factor contributing to lost productivity. Current estimates put the total cost of presenteeism to US employers at between $150 and $250 billion a year.

So while employers have a duty of care to keep their staff healthy, it is also very much in their own interests to do so.

From the bacteria studies it becomes clear that regular and thorough cleaning will help to keep office surfaces safe. Well-trained cleaning contractors will understand the risks posed by surfaces such as keyboards, computer mice, telephones and light switches and will pay these areas particular attention.

Dr Charles Gerba’s study revealed that good hand hygiene coupled with the use of antibacterial wipes reduced the spread of his Norovirus-like bug by between 80 and 99 per cent. So office managers should do all they can to facilitate good hand hygiene practices in the washroom by providing adequate supplies of soap and hand drying equipment, and perhaps by displaying hand hygiene posters explaining the link between hand washing and illness. This could deter people from leaving the washroom without washing their hands and going on to contaminate surfaces.

Cross-contamination risk

Office cleaners are not always expected to carry out specialist tasks such as cleaning computers or other electronic equipment. Where laptops are used, too, it is the responsibility of the laptop owner to keep their keyboard clean.

However, the Which? study found one in 10 people never clean their keyboard and 20 per cent never clean their computer mouse. This could be a major cause of cross-contamination, particularly with the modern practice of hotdesking where staff sit at different workstations. The research by Dr Gerba revealed that the bacteria count at office desks rose steadily throughout the day and typically peaked after lunch – unless the desk had been wiped with an antibacterial wipe during the course of the day.

There are currently moves to look into developing systems that reverse the effects of Sick Building Syndrome. At the University of California, for example, scientists are considering the possibility of embedding ‘good’ bacteria into walls, chairs, carpets, and other indoor fixtures.

But such high-tech solutions are a long way off, and in the meantime office managers and staff should be aware of the risks of neglecting their hand hygiene regimes. However at the end of the day it is the efficient and thorough work carried out by the cleaning teams that will often be the determining factor in the wellness – or otherwise – of the workplace staff.


Our Partners

  • ISSA Interclean
  • EFCI
  • EU-nited