£3.4 billion – cost of staff sickness to UK small businesses this winter

HR Editorial , 05 Oct 2011


Small and medium-sized businesses in the UK are set to lose £3.4 billion over the next six months due to staff sickness from illnesses such as cold and flu, according to research by office supplies company Viking.

The report published yesterday shows owners of small businesses in the UK estimate that they collectively lose 63 million days a year through sickness - two thirds of which are during the winter cold and flu season. Sickness rates are 27% higher in winter.

As part of the research, 300 workplace swabs were carried out. The results have revealed several different types of bacteria - and in some cases mould - found on people's work stations, showing that dirty desks could harbour office germs - one infected worker could quickly spread their illness to others via dirty workstations.

The research includes samples from large multi-national companies, small businesses, schools, hospitals and police stations.

The samples were analysed by an independent laboratory and the results revealed bacteria such as Staphylococcus, Bacillus and Micrococcus, indicating a poor level of hygiene, were frequently found on office keyboards.

Bacillus, which comes from dust or soil was found on 90% of the keyboards swabbed. 
Staphylococcus, which is found on the skin, in the nose or the mouth and can cause food poisoning if allowed to grow on food, was found on 60% the desks surveyed.

And on 50% of desks there were traces Micrococcus, commonly found on skin which transforms compounds in sweat creating an unpleasant odour. In addition to this, six desks were found to have mould underneath the keyboard.

Viking's hygiene expert, Lisa Ackerley, a chartered environmental health practitioner, said: "This research has shown that there are some very unhygienic desks right now in the UK, which is very worrying those who work in open plan offices tend to starting coming down with illnesses this time of year. Keeping equipment such as keyboards, phones and desks as germ free as possible is even more important during the cold and flu season."

Meanwhile the research showed that, IT staff lawyers and accountants are the most unhygienic office workers in the country, while social workers are more likely to have mouldy food on their desks.

The survey also revealed that 52% of all office workers are not aware that bacteria could be lurking on their keyboards, phones and screens. A staggering two thirds of office workers admitted to eating lunch at their desks and not cleaning their workstation afterwards, which is the main cause of bacteria being present and a source of food for them to multiply.

More than half of all office workers, some 56%, revealed they had a colleague with a grimy desk, but only 40% of those surveyed had the courage to approach their messy colleague about cleaning their desk.

Swab tests were carried out across the country by a range of office workers in a variety of sectors as well as public and private sector businesses, throughout September.

In all 300 swabs tests were carried out and analysed in an independent UCAS approved laboratory. The results were carried under the agreement that Viking would not disclose the names of either the employees or the name of their company.

The office worker survey was conducted between September 19 and 21, 2011 on 2,000 office workers aged between18-50, across the UK.

The SME research was conducted by Opinium between September 26-28, 2011.


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Managing health 'tools' in the workplace

Peter Marno 05 Oct 2011

The cost of sickness absence is staggering - but it need not be so high if employers have up-to-date policies and the right 'health management tools' to deal with ill-health as and when it arises. Prevention is better, and cheaper, than cure and good employers are instituting 'flu vaccination programmes as well as other health checks and educational aspects to their employment procedures to avoid costly absences.

Sickness Absence

Neil Buck 05 Oct 2011

Sickness absence has to be managed professionally by having robust policies in place and then it actually being followed by Line Managers. Failure to do one or the other or both will only ensure more cost in many ways to the SME in the long run.

Dont eat at your desk

Michael Coates 12 Oct 2011

Not surprising really as we survey all delegates to our stress management training workshops and find that 90% of delegates eat their lunch at their desk, plus a variety of other snacks. Apart from this making the work area unhygienic, they should be getting away from the desk and having a break! If managers insisted on that, both hygiene and stress would be impacted positively.

Well-being and absence management strategy

Matthew Scrimshire 12 Oct 2011

Even small businesses need to be doing their upmost to make sure that their staff are well and engaged to prevent unplanned absenteeism. Understanding the working environment and implementing robust policies with absence management tools can help to identify problems and deal with them to reduce unplanned absence and open up the hidden profits that result from reducing these bouts of unplanned absenteeism.

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