A constant sniffle, a rasping cough, a body-racking sneeze – these are the sounds of the cold and flu season. Chances are, you’re listening to this sweet symphony right now and thinking, “Just blow your nose already!” or “Please stay far, far away from me!”

Health Canada estimates that between 10 to 20 per cent of Canadians will get the flu every year, while the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety reports that adults will suffer from two to five colds a year, with most occurring during the fall and winter seasons. Staying healthy during this time of year can be a challenge but you can take precautions to increase the chances that your winter isn’t spent blowing your nose raw, sneezing into tissues, and lying in bed.

Get your shot

In Canada, the flu season usually arrives around November, overstaying its welcome until March. While getting the flu shot does not guarantee that you won’t get the flu, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the shot reduces your chances of coming down with the illness by between 50 and 60 per cent.

Not only is the flu shot the best way to protect yourself from the flu, the vaccine, according to Health Canada, will prevent you from getting extremely ill if you do get the flu, keeping you from missing work for long periods of time. The flu shot also has the added benefit of making you less likely to spread the virus to coworkers, friends, and family. You don’t want to be patient zero.

Getting your shot is simple; it’s no more complicated than walking into a clinic, filling out a form, and then after a short wait, getting the shot. Most people have no reactions beyond a sore arm and severe reactions are rare.

Flu shot

To find out where you can get your flu vaccine, visit Health Canada’s website.

Wash and wash again

While you may have gotten your flu shot, your colleagues with an aversion to needles or vaccines may have not.  A 2013 University of Arizona study highlights the shocking speed with which just one individual can contaminate a work environment. Research found that when someone comes to work sick, it takes just four hours for about half of commonly touched surfaces in an office – doorknobs, elevator and copy machine buttons, refrigerators, microwave handles, coffee machines, telephones, desktops and tabletops –  to show traces of the virus. It’s clear that illnesses spread like wildfire in an office and why washing your hands is so critical to keeping yourself healthy.

But we’re not talking the washing where we run the tap, splash some water and maybe soap on our hands, and rub them together for a few seconds before reaching for the paper towels. In order to fully eliminate the viruses from your skin, you need to scrub hard for 20 seconds or more. Not sure how long 20 seconds might be? Sing “Happy Birthday” twice to yourself while you’re scrubbing the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails, and you should be covered.


Ideally, you should be washing your hands before and after you eat, after you sneeze, cough or blow your nose, and it goes without saying, after you use the restroom. It may not be practical to wash your hands with such frequency, so keep your desk stocked with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 per cent alcohol. It’s not as effective as properly washing your hands, but it will limit the spread of germs.

While you’re keeping your hands clean, you should also strive to keep your desk similarly free of germs and viruses. A wide array of disinfecting wipes and sprays are available to sanitize your work space. Check labels to ensure the products you’re using are both safe for use around a workplace and effective at eliminating common office health hazards. Surfaces to focus on are your keyboard, telephone, mouse, and any other commonly used objects.

A little consideration

It’s hard to stay away from work. Deadlines are constant and the pressure is high to perform no matter the cost, but if you’re ill with the flu, stay home until you’re fever-free for at least 24 hours. Working while you’re sick not only undermines your own recovery, it puts your colleagues at risk. A 2011 study from Queen’s University also found that it costs employers twice as much in productivity losses for employees who come to work while sick than those who stay at home. Yet, the same study found that 62 per cent of employees would go to work while sick.

If staying home isn’t an option, do your best to protect your coworkers by washing your hands frequently, coughing, and sneezing into a tissue or your sleeve and using alcohol-based hand sanitizers. If you’re in a position where you’re expected to shake someone’s hand, let them know that you’re feeling under the weather. If you the handshake is necessary, discreetly use a hand sanitizer just before you clasp hands.

If possible, work in an isolated area where you can minimize the spread of your germs and go easy. Organize your work around when you feel most alert and put in a solid hour or two and then tap the brakes and work at 50 to 60 per cent for the rest of the day. Don’t be afraid to reschedule meetings or tasks if you feel it necessary to do so.

Let your manager and colleagues know that you aren’t feeling well; they’ll likely have greater compassion and understanding for why you’re not performing as ably as usual and there’s a chance that your manager will tell you go home to rest.

The cold and flu season is well upon us and while there’s no guarantee that you’ll come through without catching something, there are steps you can take to give yourself a fighting chance.


See also:

When enough is enough: unsafe working conditions
Can having the flu be considered a ‘disability’?


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