Workplace Cubicle and Chronic Infection

by Kay Bosworth, Demand Media
    Office cubicles are hot spots for spreading germs.

    Office cubicles are hot spots for spreading germs.

    Working in a cubicle farm can encourage camaraderie, but such proximity to your colleagues can also promote annoyance, distractions and even illness. One person catches a cold or flu, and soon she and her cube mates are infecting, and re-infecting, one another.

    Infections

    Influenza and other respiratory infections and gastrointestinal infections are responsible for countless missed workdays and losses in productivity. Influenza is a serious disease that can lead to death. Flu affects people differently, and even people who are otherwise healthy can catch the flu and spread it to others. Influenza viruses commonly circulate during “flu season,” between October and May.
    Gastrointestinal infections are caused by viral or bacterial pathogens. A common gastrointestinal infection is viral gastroenteritis, often called “stomach flu,” which causes vomiting and diarrhea.

    Transmission

    Respiratory infections are caused by viruses that can be transmitted by a sneeze or on a contaminated object. The flu virus can survive for hours on a surface, so someone who touches a contaminated surface can be exposed to the virus simply by touching her eyes or mouth.
    Gastrointestinal illnesses such as norovirus can be spread by eating contaminated food or just by touching an object, like a table, where the virus can live for days.

    Conditions

    Crowded conditions can lead to the transmission of colds and flu. Gastrointestinal infections also have been attributed to crowded environments. Sick and healthy people may be working together in cubicles and shared office spaces without walls to separate them, and they are sharing office machines, phones, computers and other equipment. Poor air flow makes such conditions even better incubators for infection.

    Prevention

    Because viruses and bacteria can be transmitted on objects in the workplace, hand washing is the easiest way to prevent spreading them. Employers should make sure restrooms are clean and that warm water, soap and paper towels are provided. Hand sanitizer gel should also be available. Employees should be encouraged to wash their hands after using the bathroom, after eating, and after sneezing and coughing. Singing “Happy Birthday” twice is an easy way to remember how long to wash. Tables, computer keyboards and other shared equipment should be disinfected frequently. Managers can cut down on exposure by substituting email and conference calls for live meetings.

    Policies

    Employers should encourage their workers to get flu vaccinations before the season begins. Flu viruses change from one year to the next, so seasonal flu vaccines protect against the viruses expected to be most common in the upcoming season. Larger companies should consider holding flu clinics to provide free or low-cost vaccinations.
    People who come to work when they are sick are less productive, and they expose others to illness. Companies should therefore institute flexible sick-leave policies to deter sick workers from feeling obligated to come to work and tough it. Such policies should encourage workers to use their sick-leave days when they are ill and allow sick employees to work from home for as long as they are contagious.

    About the Author

    Kay Bosworth was a reporter covering municipal government and a staff writer and copy editor for newspapers in northern New Jersey. She was also a copywriter for a New York City fashion ad agency, wrote fashion catalog copy for JCPenney, copy edited for the McGraw-Hill Book Company and was a proofreader for Pearson Education. She received a BA in English from Transylvania College.

    Photo Credits

    • George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images