Where germs are hiding at the office

flu sneezing sick
That thing you call a “desk” may actually be a hotspot for germs that will get you sick. Flickr/foshydog

You can hear it in the chorus of “achoos” coming from the cubicle next door: the fall colds are in full Kleenex-piled swing. Heading into the travel mayhem, cocktail parties and long meals around the table means germs are riding coach — and following you back to the office. Not having decomposing food next to your keyboard is a pretty low bar to set, so we asked Kelly Arehart, who manages the Healthy Workplace project where she analyzes and advises offices all over the world on how to keep germs at bay.

Arehart likes to start with the basics: no matter how much you play the blame game with friends and family “cold and flu are not discriminatory. Anybody can pick it up throughout their day.” Getting sick is as simple as touching an elevator button or a door handle — things you have to do, you know, to enter your office — so the key is to make sure you have a system in place. Arehart suggests making hand-washing part of the arrival routine, before you even get to your desk.

Oh, and speaking of that petri dish of bacteria you like to call a desk: According to Arehart, desks are commonly overlooked but they are party central for germs. “They understand they should wash hands (or use sanitizer if they can’t) but they miss that surfaces are a risk, a hot spot,” she says.”

Colds and flu spread easily in offices, subway cars and classrooms because people are sharing space. Part of sharing that space is knowing when you would do better to take the day off and stay home, the CDC guidelines (and Arehart) advise. In a recent survey conducted by Kimberly Clark, they found that 59 percent of people went to work sick, and three out of ten of them felt they are too important to their work to not be there.

But overall, one of the easiest ways to fight the sniffles — especially with the planes, trains and automobiles of the holiday season — is to keep your grimy hands away from your gorgeous face. Getting sick can start with that one little rub of an eye or a nose.

Tips for staying healthy at work during the holidays:

  • Wash your hands. (On this point, Arehart, the Centers for Disease Control and your mom are a broken record.)
  • Keep some surface wipes and hand sanitizer handy and use it to wipe down your work space as well as keep your hands germ-free
  • If you feel sick, do your coworkers a solid and stay home. Sometimes, Arehart says that people may be infectious even before symptoms appear, though.
  • Try to keep your hands away from your face
  • Wash your hands. Yep, broken record here.


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