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Why You Can't Keep the Flu Out of Your Office

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- When the clocks turns back and the days grow shorter -- and colder -- it doesn't just mean Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day are on the way. It also means flu season beckons.

Flu season in the U.S. lasts from late October to May, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to a CDC statement, there's no telling how bad this year's flu season could be, so it's best to be cautious and get a flu shot. "Influenza is unpredictable ... last year's mild season is not necessarily an indication of what can be expected in 2012-13," the CDC said in a statement. "Even during mild seasons, flu takes a serious toll."

The CDC reports that some 128 million people (or about 42%) of Americans got a flu shot during the 2011-12 season, mostly older Americans, pregnant women and people with regular contact with flu victims. Asurvey from office supply giant Staples gives a hint as to what happens to the rest of us:

Staples says 80% of U.S. workers will show up on the job even if they're sick with the flu, a rise of 20% from last year.

That means two things: Americans are literally worried sick about losing credibility from management by calling in with an illness, and may be passing along the flu bug to co-workers in the process.

The flu causes U.S. workers to miss 70 million workdays in an average year, leading to billions of dollars in lost productivity for U.S. companies, the survey says.

What other mistakes do workers make that can spread the flu bug (and other airborne diseases) around the workplace? Staples covers that in the survey, too:

  • 51% of employees clean their desks once a week or less, even though germs can live on surfaces for up to three days, especially on the keyboard -- typically one of the dirtiest personal workspace items.
  • 25% believe doorknobs and handles are the dirtiest places in the office, while only 6% recognize that the break room sink is actually the dirtiest, followed by the office microwave, which only 8% selected.
  • 65% feel the number of days necessary to be out of the office with the flu is one to three days and often return to work contagious; the flu virus may be contagious for one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after someone feels sick.

The survey confirms that employees would rather show up at work with the flu than be seen as slackers by management. But the survey also shows that sick workers are only about 50% effective, anyway.

Maybe that leads to the best flu prevention care next to getting a vaccination: If you're sick, don't go to work, or at least ask to work from home until you're well again.

Your body will thank you for it, and so will your co-workers.

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