Pathogens Chapter One – Virus

Picture this: You are working on a project. It’s a big one. You stand to gain a lot for completing this on time: fame, money, you name it. Suddenly, you wake up one morning and you cough. Surely it’s just because the air is dry. No worries right? You try to get up but your muscles move more slowly and your head hurts a bit. Damn, you caught the flu. This will kill your productivity for a week.

I’ve decided to start a series of articles on pathogens and ways to protect yourself (and your team) from them. Obviously, you’ll still get sick from time to time but you can at least lower the incidence of it.

So, to go back to the flu, you are probably hearing about it in the news fairly often. Influenza is a virus and these little alive/non-alive particles are the subject of our chapter 1.



Wikipedia defines viruses as a small infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of other organisms.

The cool thing about this is that, since they require a host to grow, it’s still debatable whether or not they can be considered alive. On the one hand, they do replicate, evolve, have DNA, etc. But, on the other hand, they don’t have the necessary machinery to do that on their own.

Another thing that you might not know about viruses is that they can (and do) infect any kind of living organism, from whales to bacteria. In fact, bacteria-infecting viruses, called bacteriophages, can potentially help you have you have a a bacteria infection. You can fight fire with fire.

Bacteriophage injecting genetic material in bacteria

Phages are cool! Image by: Thomas Splettstoesser

 Popular Viruses

I just want to say that by “popular” I don’t mean that there are people cheering on and wearing t-shirt or buying plush toys. I just mean that those are the viruses that most of you would have heard about.


That’s the superstar. Everybody gets the flu every now and then. It sucks and keeps you in bed for at least a couple of days. Even when you can get up and do something, you just feel like shit and can’t give your 100%.

Influenza cell cycle

Influenza cycle. Image by YK Times


This virus is also the one responsible of some of the worst epidemics and pandemics since the human race came to be. You’ve all heard of the 1918 Spanish Flu and every now and then, scientists go on TV to say that a new big pandemic is coming. We’ll get into this a bit later in the article, but these pandemic warnings are legit. The good thing is that we seem to have gotten good enough at containing the viruses that we have averted catastrophe for the past 35 years.

Modes of transmission
  • Indirect and direct contact through touching contaminated surface such as hands, door handles.
  • Airborne through inhalation or ingestion of aerosol viral particles.


The herpes virus family is also pretty well known. HSV-1 and 2, the two genital/oral herpes viruses and the Varicella zoster virus which gives you chickenpox and, later in life shingles are part of this family. 90% of humans on earth have been infected at least once with a virus from this family.

Herpes Simplex Virus Cycle

Herpes Simplex Virus cycle. Image by GrahamColm



Usually, these don’t really have a significant impact on productivity. Yes, if you get chickenpox as an adult, it sucks. But you only get it once (and maybe shingles later) and you are done.

Mode of transmission
  • Close contact. There are variations throughout the family but usually, you have to touch an infected person.


The name might not be as well known as the others on that list but it’s the leading cause of viral gastroenteritis. This disease can be disastrous in an office environment. Within a few days, 70% of your employees are on sick leave and you don’t know what to do. But, your employees are not alone. The virus infects more than 260 million people every year.



Modes of transmission
  • Direct and indirect contact through touching infected people or ingesting contaminated food or water. Touching contaminated items can also lead to the spread of the virus


If you want to define the biological history of the late 20th century, HIV will certainly hold a very large chapter. In terms of workplace productivity however, especially in the western world, it is not an issue. This may be less true if you work in a medical field but this article won’t talk much about HIV.

HIV cycle

HIV cycle. Image by Thomas Splettstoesser


Mode of transmission
  • Fluid to fluid contact. This can be through blood transfers, sex, etc.

 Impact on Productivity

That’s the cool part. Or not so cool if you are on the receiving end of it. At any rate, it’s fascinating.

Look at this article from the CDC. It estimates the impact of the seasonal flu on loss productivity for US businesses to be more than $10 billion annually. If you add the total costs of illnesses, including loss of productivity, you end up with the astronomical number of $576B every year, in the US alone. To put it in perspective, this study estimates that 10-12% of missed workdays in the US are due to Influenza. That’s only one virus and doesn’t include other diseases like the common cold or gastroenteritis. If you are business owner or a manager, this is an important statistic because it can make the difference between meeting your objectives and not.

As an individual, while a sick day (or three) is not necessarily that big a deal, the loss of productivity can last for much longer than that. While your body is mopping up the rest of the virus, you aren’t at peak performance to do what you should be doing. You are in a worst mood than normal and can’t think straight. You aren’t a top performing individual.

 Protect Yourself

You feel awesome right now and don’t want to lose it. You don’t want to become a sniveling mess and don’t want your team members to stop showing up for work. What do you do?

Well, like all battles, it’s better if you can avoid it completely. Use these tricks to protect yourself or others

  • Wash/Disinfect your hands often. BTW, you don’t need to be anal about this, the idea is that during flu season, you should wash your hands often, mostly after interactions with other humans. Outside of flu season, it’s still a good idea to do it but you can dial back a bit on the frequency.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Ask your employees to go home if they are sick, even if they feel like they can work. Better lose one employee’s productivity than the whole team’s.
  • Ask your cleaning team to make sure to wipe and disinfect areas that see a lot of different human contact. This would be door handle, telephones and computers in conference rooms, cafeteria chairs, light switches, etc.
  • If you feel like sneezing or coughing, either use a tissue or the inside of your elbow. Don’t sneeze in your hands, since you’ll probably touch something or someone later on.
  • Vitamin C helps in prevention.
  • Vaccines also help. The flu vaccine is not effective against all strains so you might still get it. The severity of your symptoms might be decreased.
  • And of course, try to avoid contact with visibly sick people.

You’ve done all this and still got invaded by a viral army. What do you do?

  • Stay HOME. Don’t spread the virus to your employees or coworkers.
  • Follow what your body tells you to do, which is, mainly, rest.
  • If, at any time, you feel that you can’t take it, don’t hesitate to call a doctor (if you are in Canada, like me, that’s free!)

 Action Items

  1. Meet with your employees and team members and outline your sick day or flu policy. If they are sick they should NOT be at work.
  2. Make sure you get 100% vitamin C in your diet
  3. Meet with your cleaning team or maids and ensure that they clean potentially contaminated areas regularly
  4. Wash your hands often

 Further Resources – Want to learn more about the topic?

Here are a few articles that discuss the same subject

Now you know more about viruses. I’ll post the next chapter in a month or so. Next time we’ll look at the evil (or not) bacteria!

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