Illness is bad for business. American workers take hundreds of millions of sick days each year, costing their employers billions of dollars in lost productivity. In a cruel irony, one major driver of absenteeism might be some employees’ reluctance to stay home while sick. Many people have scarce paid sick days, if they have any at all. Others simply feel so much professional pressure that they drag themselves into the office while ill.
As a result, these dedicated workers expose their colleagues to contagion, risking the spread of sickness throughout the staff. From the conference room phone to your own keyboard, surfaces around your office can be teeming with germs. But how many of us actually take prudent precautions to avoid catching something at work – or infecting our co-workers?
We decided to find out, surveying 1,000 respondents about their hygiene habits around the workplace. Our findings reveal how people protect themselves from illness at work, or utterly neglect to do so. Are you more or less sanitary than the typical office worker? Keep reading to find out.
Washing and Working
In terms of cleanliness at work, bathing regularly would seem to be a basic expectation. Yet, our findings indicate that many professionals are prone to lapses. Half our respondents admitted to going to work without showering at least once in the last month. Beyond concerns about body odor offending one’s co-workers, skimping on showering can pose real health risks. Bathing is one of the chief ways we remove bacteria from our bodies, preventing skin and fungal infections.
Similarly, 56% of respondents said they’d worn unwashed clothing to work in the past month, while a quarter had worn sweaty items to the office. In certain instances, these habits can produce uncomfortable health problems, such as yeast infections and UTIs. The more likely result of wearing dirty clothes is an acne flare-up – or your colleagues taking issue with your stench.
On that subject, nearly 1 in 4 respondents admitted to skipping deodorant at the office. Nearly 10% sometimes, rarely, or never wore deodorant at work. In some cases, co-worker odor can cause ugly altercations. In 2017, a Colorado woman was fired for hanging air fresheners around the office to mask a colleague’s smell.
Sanitary Liabilities: Unclean and Inconsiderate
Unfortunately, our respondents reported many workplace behaviors that might put them or their colleagues at risk of getting sick. For example, roughly half said they hadn’t washed their hands before eating at least once in the last month, a shortcut that increases one’s odds of getting ill.
Some clear gender differences emerged. Men seemed especially inclined to certain unsanitary maneuvers, including picking their noses and failing to cover their mouths when coughing. Interestingly, seniority seemed to have little to no bearing on hygiene habits. Managers committed these unsanitary sins as often as other employees. This is an alarming finding, as business leaders and owners can help set the tone to prevent the spread of illness at work.
Workplace bathrooms played host to another set of problematic behaviors. The most common errors involved employees’ use of cellphones while relieving themselves, a practice physicians warn against due to the risk of germ transfer. Once again, clear gender differences surfaced. Men were far more likely to leave the toilet lid up while flushing, not lift the seat while urinating, and accidentally pee on the floor. Additionally, roughly a third of respondents had witnessed an unflushed toilet at work – perhaps the previous occupant was too entranced by his or her phone to remember this crucial step.
Critiquing Colleagues, Keeping Clean
Plenty of research indicates that a clean and organized desk can boost your productivity, but it may also aid your career in another way: earning the respect of your colleagues. 62% of respondents said they judged their co-workers based on the neatness of their workspace.
Cleanliness provoked even more scrutiny. Over two-thirds of respondents said they judged their colleagues’ hygiene at work. Individuals in upper management roles were particularly inclined to pass judgment on a worker’s cleanliness. Although the norms of workplace attire have certainly relaxed over time, it seems good hygiene remains essential to making a positive impression.
If office workers regularly judge the hygiene of their peers, how often do they clean their own workspace and personal items? On average, women cleaned more often than men did, no matter the item in question. Both male and female respondents cleaned their water bottles most frequently. However, they were far less vigilant about cleaning certain items they constantly touch, such as their mouse and keyboard. Indeed, while microbiologists advise cleaning your keyboard at least once a week, most respondents did so just once or twice a month.
Going In, Getting Sick
Over two-thirds of respondents believed they’d contracted an illness from a co-worker in the past. Within this group, the common cold was the most ubiquitous ailment. Nearly 43% said they’d contracted the flu from a colleague, an unfortunately realistic hypothesis. The flu often spreads due to contact between co-workers, and authorities urge employers to take appropriate precautions during flu season.
Despite real concerns about falling ill, however, many respondents neglected basic steps to prevent the spread of germs. More than a fifth of respondents said they’d gone an entire workday without washing their hands at least once in the last month. Men were particularly likely to fail to wash their hands.
Interestingly, 47% of respondents said they’d suggested that a colleague go home due to signs of illness. The symptoms that prompted these suggestions tended to be consistent with either a cold or flu, such as coughing, sneezing, fever, or congestion. When experiencing such problems, did our respondents tend to stay home themselves?
Not always, our findings show. Indeed, 73% said they’d gone to work while sick. Worse still, a significant portion recalled going to work when sick with a serious and potentially infectious illness, such as the flu or strep throat.
These ailing employees didn’t always lie low in an attempt to avoid infecting others. Most attended meetings and interacted closely with co-workers. 22% even shook a colleague’s hand. No wonder so many respondents reported using hand sanitizer after hand-to-hand contact with co-workers. Given their own sanitary indiscretions, they know just how irresponsible their colleagues can be.
Protecting Your Productivity
Our findings suggest that many of us fall short in terms of workplace hygiene. Moreover, these lapses are so common that they can’t be attributed to laziness alone. During a busy workday, it can be tough to pause and make time for cleaning. When you pass a delicious snack in the break room, it takes discipline to wash your hands before digging in.
When you overlook these precautions, illness can disrupt your work for days on end. Accordingly, workplace hygiene is best seen as integral to professional success for you and all your colleagues. Take the time to meet basic sanitary standards, and you’re far less likely to get sidelined by sickness.
Perhaps you’re looking for a new position in a healthier, more appealing workplace. Joblist is here to help you make the leap, with the latest listings tailored to your needs and preferences. We’ll help you find the perfect job and apply online. When they invite you to an interview, just remember to bring your own hand sanitizer.
Methodology and Limitations
We surveyed 1,000 employees on Amazon Mechanical Turk who worked in an office space with others to find out details about their workplace hygiene. Fifty-three percent of respondents were female, while 47% were male. The average age of respondents was 38 with an age range from 18 to 88. Thirty-four percent of respondents worked in an office with one to 15 employees; 32% worked with 16 to 50 employees; 16% worked with 51 to 100 employees; and 19% worked with over 100 employees.
There are problems with self-reported data. These problems include but are not limited to selective memory, telescoping, exaggeration, and lying. To help protect against this, respondents were excluded if they failed an attention-check question.
Fair Use Statement
Think your colleagues could use a friendly workplace hygiene reminder? Feel free to share this project with them (in the spirit of constructive feedback, of course). In fact, you’re welcome to share this work with anyone, so long as you observe two simple rules. First, please use our images and information only for noncommercial purposes. Second, please link back to this page, allowing others to view the full project.