How Not to Get Sick at Work

Make yourself immune this cold and flu season.

Photographer: Those People for Bloomberg Businessweek; Grooming: Ada Trinh

It might be you, it might be your co-worker, but at some point this winter, someone’s going to show up at the office when they shouldn’t. Dragging ourselves to work sick—a behavior social scientists call “presenteeism”—costs employers $160 billion a year in lost productivity, according to research published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Avoid spreading sickness with this handy guide to the best desk disinfectants, immunity-boosting snacks, and other advice for staying germ-free. Be well!

Ask an Infectious Disease Specialist: Should I Call in Sick?

Michael Zimring, an infectious disease expert at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, addresses your winter bug bugaboos

Is there a good litmus test for when I should keep away from the office?
If you have a fever, chills, or sweats, it’s advisable to stay home. But it really depends on how you feel. What I usually tell people is to stay home if you’re so weak you can’t get your head off the pillow.

If I do go in, how do I keep everyone else from getting sick?
Wash your hands carefully—that’s one of the key factors. Cough into the crook of your elbow, not into the palm of your hand, so you won’t spread germs when you touch things.

How long do germs stick around after I cough or sneeze?
They last on doorknobs and desks for several minutes minimum, but they can persist for several hours.

Will it help to wipe down my desk?
There is a benefit to doing that. Your desk does carry germs, especially when you eat on it, like I always do. Wiping it down periodically with an alcohol-based solution is a good idea.

What about more obsessive behavior, such as opening the bathroom door with a paper towel? Or refusing to touch the elevator buttons?
People use the towels to get out of the bathroom, because other people use the bathroom and don’t wash their hands. That’s not going overboard. But the elevator buttons stuff—I touch the buttons, and I haven’t died from it yet. There are germs around. What are you going to do, live in a bubble?

In Case You Do Get Sick, Keep a Box of Tissues Handy

Julie Russak, founder of Russak Dermatology Clinic in New York, advises avoiding tissues treated with lotion. “A lot of people are actually allergic to preservatives used for premoistened tissue,” she says. But you should apply moisturizer separately—before and after you blow your nose, if you can—to keep your skin from becoming inflamed. She likes Kleenex Ultra Soft ($2.50 for a box of 75;

Disinfect Your Desk

Professional organizer Tidy Tova explains what you need to keep your workspace germ-free

Photographer: Those People for Bloomberg Businessweek

Jo-Sha wipes (1) were originally intended for yoga mats, but they’re great for desks. Plus the Zen scents—lavender, eucalyptus, tangerine, and peppermint—will help calm you down ($13 for a pack of 20; If you want a more original aroma, try Seventh Generation disinfecting wipes (2) in lemongrass citrus ($2.99 for a pack of 35;, Mrs. Meyer's multisurface everyday cleaner (3) in rosemary ($3.99;, or J.R. Watkins all-purpose cleaner (4) in white tea and bamboo ($4.99;

Once a week, dust your desk and so-called high-touch spots, such as telephone receivers and doorknobs, with Zwipes microfiber cloths (5) ($11 for a pack of 12; and Method all-purpose cleaner (6) ($4; It’s a great combo for adios-ing germs—and the remnants of any sad desk lunches.

Store all of your cleansing products in Poppin organizers (7) ($10;, which can be wiped down as easily as the rest of your desk.

Stock Your Desk (and Fridge)

Rachel Stahl, a registered dietitian in New York, says you should stash these immunity-boosting snacks in your drawer

Photographer: Those People for Bloomberg Businessweek

The skins are full of vitamin E, which may enhance the immune system’s response to cold and flu viruses. Pack almonds in an empty Altoids tin for portion control. Other snacks high in E you can easily store at your desk: sunflower seeds, peanut butter, and fortified whole-grain cereal.

Green tea
The polyphenols in green tea are potent antioxidants that fight off infection. But don’t add milk: It binds to the compounds, hindering their benefit.


Berries, kiwi, carrots, and red bell peppers

All fruits and vegetables have antioxidants, but the ones with the darkest, richest colors have the most.

Greek yogurt
The probiotics in Greek yogurt make it worth stashing in the office fridge; they help your digestive system and may reduce the severity of colds. Make sure to buy only brands that contain “live and active cultures.”

Hard-boiled eggs, orange juice, and milk
Vitamin D found in these foods helps stimulate the immune system. Sunlight’s the best source of D; try taking a 10-minute walk in the afternoon.

Photographer: Those People for Bloomberg Businessweek

How to Sneeze and Cough Politely

Advice from Jodi Smith, the founder of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Marblehead, Mass.

Always carry tissues.
No one wants to see someone in a beautifully tailored suit sneeze into his elbow (even if you’re supposed to). Yuck!

“Bless you” is optional.
If you’re talking with someone who sneezes, you should say something. But if they’re two cubicles over, the sneeze shouldn’t be acknowledged. As a general rule, the first sneeze or two should be politely acknowledged. You can ignore a perpetual parade of sneezes all day long.

Sneeze at your desk …
A covered sneeze, followed by a tissue dab, is fine.

… but blow your nose in the bathroom.
No one needs to listen to your snot progression.

Sanitize Your Hands Without Drying Them Out

Kiehl’s first-class purifying hand treatment
This “cream gel” rubs into your hands like a lotion for minimal dripping ($18;

Organic Defence hand spray
A light spray with a pleasant, citrus scent, it has witch hazel for extra germ killing ($10.50;

The Organic Pharmacy disinfecting hand gel
Made with marine algae, a powerful skin conditioner, this one is especially soothing ($18.45;

The Honest Co. hand sanitizer spray
A particularly quick-drying spray that comes in three different scents—the orange smells like creamsicles ($5.95;

Yes, You Really Need a Flu Shot

Photographer: Those People for Bloomberg Businessweek

Perhaps you know someone who received the shot and swears she still got sick or someone who’s not gotten the vaccination and says she’s never had the flu. Ignore these opinions and get the shot, Zimring says: “Everyone needs a flu shot, period.” Anyone claiming the vaccination gave them the flu is probably confusing her illness with a cold, he says, or might have gotten a strain that wasn’t covered by the shot, which is formulated to protect against each year’s most common varieties. Flu shots are so important that a hospital worker can be fired for not getting one. As for the possibility of an allergic reaction, Zimring says that’s extremely rare. “I haven’t seen it,” he says. And if your last excuse is that flu season is already half-over, you’re out of luck. “It’s not too late in January or even February,” he says.

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