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Germ warfare

Preventing the spread of germs is key to reducing sickness in the winter workplace. We ask two cleaning and hygiene specialists for their advice

As Christmas and the New Year loom, the winter months bring plenty of opportunities for celebration. However, with low temperatures, minimal sunlight and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) potentially impacting on workforce morale, the last thing employers need is high levels of illness due to the spread of germs.

Recent years have seen a fall in health-related absenteeism, points out George Hand, Sales Manager for cleaning, hygiene and catering at Office Depot. “UK employers collectively lost 4.3 days per worker in 2016, the lowest rate since 1993. However, these figures should not cause organisations to become complacent. A study by The Lancet found that 77 per cent of flu carriers displayed no symptoms whatsoever. It’s important to take steps to prevent cross-contamination in all areas of the workplace, helping to ensure that your organisation continues to run smoothly throughout the winter season.”

First and foremost, while preventing absenteeism is a high priority, this does not mean that sick days should not be taken. In fact, says Hand, they are absolutely vital. “If employees know they are ill, and suffering from a fever or other symptoms, they should stay at home until at least 24 hours after the symptoms have disappeared.

“By forcing employees to come to work regardless of illness, employers are probably doing more harm than good. Not only will the staff member in question take longer to return to health without a proper period of rest and relaxation, they may well be contagious, and therefore an infection risk to the entire office. As a result, organisations may suddenly find themselves running on skeleton staff, losing a whole chunk of the workforce rather than a single staff member.”

Sean Fisher, MD of Servest Cleaning, agrees that UK employers should not become complacent. “All working environments are susceptible to viral contamination, and co-working spaces are at even greater risk of cross-infection,” he warns. “The winter months can be particularly challenging because you’ve got the added problem of ensuring temporary staff – covering those who opt to go home for Christmas – are trained correctly.”

Both agree that good planning can mitigate the problem, helping to minimise disruption to the organisation.

“Handwashing is key when it comes to preventing the spread of germs,” says Hand. “While the vast majority of employees probably believe they are diligent in washing their hands, posters and signs in washrooms are useful in highlighting the generally accepted recommendation that hands should be washed for a minimum of 20 seconds.

“Choice of hand soap is another consideration. Alcohol-based sanitisers have been found to be effective in hampering the spread of germs, but their harsh effect on skin can deter use. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution; the specific needs of the organisation should always be considered, and it may be worth getting advice from a cleaning and hygiene specialist.”

It’s also important to make sure workspaces are properly heated. Government regulations state that offices must be kept at a minimum temperature of 16 degrees. This is not simply a legal requirement – it’s vital to morale, and therefore productivity. “However, FMs should not be too heavy-handed with the thermostat,” says Hand. “Stuffy offices are not only uncomfortable, they are also a breeding ground for germs, and it’s vital to strike a balance between comfort and practicality. Heating and ventilation systems should be frequently checked. Installing intelligent climate-controlled office HVAC systems can help ensure that the workplace remains at a comfortable temperature, no matter the conditions outside.”

Maintaining a clean environment is essential. “Employers and employees alike have a responsibility to look after their workspaces,” says Hand. “Employers should make sure that a regular weekly – or ideally, daily – cleaning regime is in place. Professional office cleaning and maintenance companies will help to keep an office’s hygiene requirements in check as well as limiting opportunities for cross-infection.”

One way for FM providers to help protect the people they serve is to ensure good communication with the client, says Fisher. “For example, we run regular ‘toolbox talks’ – a meeting with site managers that addresses the challenges posed by a particular time of year and how we can manage them. These management meetings also involve mapping a site’s touchpoints to ensure there’s a tailored cleaning provision.”

This does not mean that employees should not take responsibility and be proactive when it comes to their personal habits and the maintenance of their workspaces. “Research conducted by the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) found that even with proper handwashing regimes in place, other potentially harmful habits were rife,” notes Hand. “One in 10 office workers were found to use their mobile while in the toilet, while one in 20 admitted to reading a work document in there. The only way to prevent such behaviour is to educate employees about the risks and encourage healthier habits.”

He continues: “Employees should be aware of the need to keep their personal workstations tidy. The build-up of clutter in the form of unnecessary documents and empty mugs may not seem a big deal, but in reality such unhygienic environments provide the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. Recent research has found that the average work desk accommodates 10 million germs – 400 times more than the average toilet seat.”

Clutter also leads to an accumulation of dust, he adds, which has been linked to numerous respiratory diseases. By adopting a clear desk policy or simply taking the time to tidy their desks regularly, as well as using disinfectant wipes, employees can take control of their own hygiene – and may well improve their productivity in the process.

Hand concludes: “By implementing effective cleaning regimes and ensuring staff are aware of the need for good hygiene at work, organisations can ensure that workplaces are as clean, comfortable and productive during the winter months as the rest of the year.”

About Sarah OBeirne

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