After 38 years in business, Stephen Collins, founder of Stephco Cleaning & Restoration, in Holbrook, Mass., has learned an important lesson: There really is a direct correlation between a clean work environment and improved employee health.

“Winter cleaning may be more important than spring cleaning,” says Collins, whose company handles commercial cleaning services for numerous health care facilities, office buildings, and banks in the Boston area. “Commercial buildings are buttoned up tight, which is good for energy conservation. But reduced fresh air flow along with the arrival of the cold and flu season means workplaces are an ideal place for the growth and spread of germs — and a dramatic jump in sick days.”

Germ Warfare

For businesses that don’t offer sick days, the opposite could be true, and potentially just as harmful. A recent survey conducted by office supply chain Staples indicates that “presenteeism” — going to work when you should stay home — is on an upswing. Nearly 80% of workers polled come to work even when they know they’re sick — an increase of 20% over the previous year. For those who stay home, more than two-thirds return to work when they’re still contagious, putting coworkers’ health and productivity at risk.

A survey by Bloomberg BNA in May 2012 showed that absenteeism rates were well below those recorded before the recent recession. For instance, absenteeism averaged 0.7% of scheduled worker days in the first quarter of 2011, compared with 1.5% in the first quarter of 2006. Job absence plunged to record lows in 2009 and 2011.

In addition to presenteeism, Collins lists several factors that can lead to an unhealthy work environment:

Reduced office space forcing employees to work in closer proximity to one another.

An increasing number of people eating at their workspaces.

People who sneeze, cough, or yawn without covering their mouths.

Workers who leave restrooms without thoroughly washing their hands.

Employees working longer hours, often in bacteria-laden areas (thanks to other factors listed).

Keep It Clean

Regularly sanitizing surfaces reduces bacteria, and washing hands often and thoroughly is considered the best way to fight catching someone else’s germs. Collins says he recognizes that budget cuts often come at the expense of professional cleaning services, but that office cleaning is an important part of worker welfare.

“Due to budget cuts, some property managers and landlords ask our advice on ways to cut cleaning costs,” Collins says. “We feel it’s a team effort and we work with them, always emphasizing the importance of maintaining the highest standards of cleanliness. A clean workspace also makes a good impression on clients.”

A study by paper products manufacturer Kimberly-Clark found that kitchens and breakrooms are the germiest spaces in an office. The Healthy Workplace Project collected nearly 5,000 swabs from office buildings and found that breakroom sink faucets, microwave door handles, refrigerator door handles, vending machine buttons, and water fountain button were among the most-contaminated surfaces in the office, followed (not surprisingly) by computer keyboards.

To keep spaces cleaner between professional cleanings, consider placing disinfecting wipes in the breakroom, and offer easy access to hand sanitizers, the study’s coordinators recommend. “Contamination is all over the workplace and has the potential to reach people where they eat and prepare food, as well as elsewhere,” says Brad Reynolds, North American Platform Leader of Kimberly-Clark’s Healthy Workplace Project. “No one can avoid it entirely, but by washing, wiping, and sanitizing, employees can reduce their rates of cold, flu, and stomach illness by up to 80%.”

—Lauren Hunter, senior editor, REMODELING. @LaurenHunter_HW