The flu outbreak in Boston has employers on high alert, giving door knobs and elevator buttons an extra cleaning, holding additional flu clinics, even recommending that workers sprinkle sprouted garlic on their salads to boost their immune systems.
Boston has reported more than 750 confirmed cases of the flu this winter, up from just 70 last winter, prompting Mayor Thomas M. Menino to declare a public health emergency last week. The workplace is one of the main places where illness can spread like wildfire, in part due to the many people who drag themselves into the office when they are coughing, feverish, and achy.
When the cofounder of Ubersense Inc. came down with the flu last week, chief executive Krishna Ramchandran went to Walgreens and stocked up on minibottles of hand sanitizer for each of the eight employees in the office, who work closely together on the Boston company’s mobile sports coaching app. Keeping workers healthy is the top priority, but the company also can’t afford to have more people out sick.
“We are such a small team that every person plays a key role in moving the business forward,” Ramchandran said.
More people came to work sick last year — 80 percent, according to a recent online survey by Framingham office supplier Staples Inc. Among those who did stay home, more than two-thirds came back to the office while they were still contagious.
Employees are worried about holding onto their jobs in a shaky economy and don’t want to appear as if they are slacking off, workplace analysts say; others don’t want to put a burden on co-workers who are already overworked due to staff reductions.
Many people can’t afford to call in sick. Nearly 40 percent of private sector workers don’t have paid sick days, according to the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
All these germs in the workplace take a toll on the national economy. A 2003 study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that people coming to work sick cost $160 billion a year in lost productivity, a figure that has undoubtedly risen since then. Feverish employees who stagger into the office are not only less efficient and take longer to recover, they can also spread their illness to co-workers.
“If I come in and I make everybody else sick too, then everybody’s working at a diminished capacity,” said Sarah Jane Glynn, a workplace analyst at the Center for American Progress.
The Boston staffing firm Hollister Inc. has seen the flu hit the workplace on several fronts. Some of its employees have come down with it, as have the temporary workers they place and the clients they serve. After one temp called in sick, the company that had requested the worker tell Hollister it could not use her anyway because the project supervisor was also sick.
“It is rampant,” said chief executive Kip Hollister.
The law firm Goodwin Procter has instructed its cleaning crew to disinfect the kitchen, restrooms, door handles, stairway railings, and elevator call buttons twice daily, up from the usual once a day — the same protocol employed during the swine flu outbreak a few years ago. The property manager of the firm’s Boston building has also increased its rate of wiping down revolving doors, turnstiles, and call buttons in the main lobby.
Kerri Axelrod, an account manager at Marlo Marketing/Communications, tried a few natural remedies recommended by an alternative health care client when she came down with a sore throat and earache a few weeks ago. Unlike four co-workers who became ill, she battled off her symptoms over the weekend by drinking a concoction of cayenne pepper, turmeric, and honey; sprinkling garlic and onion sprouts on salad; and drinking apple cider vinegar mixed with water. Axelrod, who is studying to be a holistic health counselor, then spread the word to co-workers.
Even Boston’s professional sports teams, which employ some of the healthiest people in the city, are concerned about the flu. All the Celtics players got flu shots before the preseason started, although the vaccination apparently did not help guard Leandro Barbosa, who was hospitalized with flu-like symptoms in December. Stacey James, a spokesman for the Patriots, said the bug has bitten a few staff members “but it hasn’t really impacted the team yet. Fingers crossed.”
One practice that can reduce the spread of illness at the office is limiting casual conversations with co-workers during an outbreak, said Ben Waber, chief executive of Sociometric Solutions, a Boston company that uses sensors to track how people collaborate in the workplace.
Using data showing that seven out of 50 people in an office will typically get sick during a flu outbreak, Waber found that eliminating interactions of 5 minutes or less cut an employee’s likelihood of getting sick by 50 percent, and also didn’t hurt productivity. If fact, it improved slightly.
“It boils down to, try not to chitchat at work when there’s an outbreak,” Waber said.
More employers seem to be encouraging ailing employees to stay home, said John Challenger, the chief executive of the Chicago outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
The increased ability to telecommute is allowing more people to work from home when they are not feeling well, but there is also a rising awareness about how to prevent the spread of infectious disease, he said.
People now know they should cough or sneeze into their sleeves instead of their hands, and employers have started realizing that sick people who come into the office can infect their co-workers, hurting productivity more than if they had just stayed home.
In the past, Challenger said, “employers at least tacitly worked on kind of the unwritten rule that you came into work unless you were on your deathbed.”