How to Kill Office Germs and Stop Cold and Flu in Their Nasty Tracks

Grab some disinfectant wipes, and become the office savior.

Sick co-workers and disinfecting an office.

Remember, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer are your friend.

Remember about a year ago, when your cubicle neighbor Cathy caught a cold? And soon Steve in sales was sneezing. And then Harold in HR was hacking. Within a few weeks, your once chipper officemates were either surrendering to sick days or showing up for work while fighting fevers.Sounds like the makings a productive workplace!Gather Cathy, Steve, Harold and all your co-workers. Now say this out loud, like an office oath: Not.This.Year. Follow the tips below to keep you and your officemates healthy this cold and flu season:

1. Know your germ hot spots.
Think the toilet seats in the communal restroom are nasty? They’re nothing compared to the surfaces in the break room you know, the space where you handle your lunch. Microwave buttons, coffee pot handles, sink faucets and break room counter tops are among the most germ-infested surfaces in your office. Other high-traffic surfaces, such as door handles and copier buttons, harbor loads of germs, too, says Kelly Arehart, senior manager of global innovation at Kimberly-Clark Professional, which helps businesses fight germ transmissions through its Healthy Workplace Project.

These are the things everyone touches, from Sue, who just shook hands with five clients, to Joe, who just licked Russian dressing from his fingers while scarfing an unwieldy Reuben sandwich. And while you probably notice the cleaning crew disinfecting the restrooms during the day, when is the last time you noticed someone wiping down the microwave buttons?

Of course, those germs don’t stay in communal areas, because you probably don’t wash your hands after touching the microwave like you do after using the restroom. (But you probably have a few co-workers who don’t wash their hands after either action, so don’t set your bag of chips on the restroom counter as you make a pit stop before your lunch meeting.)

“Every time we go out into one of those common areas, every time we shake hands with someone, every time we touch anything, we bring [germs] back to our desk,” Arehart says. The main offenders in your cube? Your cellphone and keyboard, she says. Et tu, trusty technology?

2. Disinfect the heck out of these spots. Regularly wipe down nightmare surfaces with disinfectant wipes, suggested Charles Gerba, microbiologist and co-author of “The Germ Freak’s Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu,” in a U.S. News Health article. Gerba prefers disposable wipes to sponges and rags, which can harbor bacteria, and recommends using the wipes in the break room about three times per day during cold and flu season. If you’re so inclined, suggest a break room disinfecting policy to your office manager, or do the wiping yourself.

As for your desktop, wipe it down once a day, Gerba says. After all, didn’t finger-licking Joe handle the same birthday card for your boss, which at one point made it to your desk? “If you’re the kind of person who heats up your food and then sits back down at your desk, think about wiping down the surface of your desk before you drop some food on it and then stick it back in your mouth,” Arehart says.

3. Ask for the tools to create a healthy workplace.
How does one disinfect without disinfectant wipes? No, it’s not an existential quandary, it’s a very real question you ought to ask your office manager or building services provider if wipes aren’t available. The same goes for hand sanitizer, soap and tissues – these wellness products need to be visible and available for employees to actually use them. Arehart says these are key tools that help individuals keep their personal spaces clean, which in turn helps the whole office become healthier. (What if Joe had pumped sanitizer from a dispenser after eating his sandwich and before touching the birthday card?)

Plus, Arehart says having these products around will prompt your co-workers to clean common areas, too. “The percentage of our population that we term ‘germ-anxious’ – that really have anxiety about germs in their environment – are really the people you want to empower,” she says. “So if you put disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer in common spaces so that people can get to them, people will actually use them to make the workplace a little bit cleaner.”

4. Please, please cover your coughs and sneezes. You would think this request is too common sense to expand on, but it’s too important not to. “Unfortunately, sneezes can travel a ridiculously far way, so please grab a tissue,” Arehart says. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises coughing into tissues as well and states that if a tissue is unavailable, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve rather than your hand. ​Afterward, dispose of the tissue if you used one, and wash your hands. Speaking of which …

5. Wash your hands. Arehart deems hand washing “the single-best thing a person can do to keep themselves safe during the season.” Wash your hands before eating and after blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing and using the restroom. And then go ahead and wash your hands an extra time during the day, says Arehart, calling this “your public service for the day.” And don’t think a quick rinse job will cut it. Go for a nice lather, and then scrub for at least 20 seconds, or as the CDC points out, the length of about two “Happy Birthday” songs.

Hand sanitizer can help kill the germs on your hands, too. Arehart says sanitizer works as a good “second-best” option if soap and water aren’t available, and there’s no dirt or debris on your hands. But again, there’s a right way to use sanitizer: “Rub it in, and let it dry on its own,” she says.

6. And for the love of the office gods, take a sick day if you need to.​
Say you wake up with a burning fever but go to work anyway. After all, your team’s project deadline is Friday, and your co-workers need you. A lot of folks would do the same. Sixty percent of the 1,500 U.S. workers in an October 2014 Staples survey said they’d go to work with flu.​But here’s the thing: How valuable are you to your team if you’re sick? And what happens to the team if the other members start feeling lousy, too?

Plus, consider your team members’ families, Arehart says. If you spread your sickness to Joe, he could take it home to young kids or elderly relatives, she adds.

Make an effort to keep the workplace healthy, and stay home if those efforts fail. “It’s about you,” she says. “But it’s also about all the other people you could possibly affect.”