News: Hand Sanitizer Won't Stop an Office Outbreak—If Your Coworker Doesn't Care

Hand Sanitizer Won't Stop an Office Outbreak—If Your Coworker Doesn't Care

There's now more reasons to make sick workers stay home—a new game theory study suggests adequate hand washing and other illness-aversion tactics aren't as useful as we thought to keep you from getting infected when a virus or bacteria is circulating.

According to a study published by the journal Scientific Reports, healthy people who take measures to avoid getting sick cannot fully eradicate the spread of disease without an infected individual taking preemptive steps first. Instead, the sick individual in question needs to take steps to avoid infecting anyone else, and the main motivator for taking those steps seems to be empathy—the ability to understand the feelings of others.

A sick person who changes their behavior, by staying home or not touching shared surfaces, is the best way to reduce the spread of disease through an environment, the study found. On the flip-side of that, a healthy individual who tries to avoid catching an illness from another coworker, family member, or friend could use all the hand sanitizer, hand washing, and doorknob covering in the world, but would only reduce "a small portion of potential infections," the study says.

"When we studied individual behavior, empathy trumped risk aversion in disease eradication, which was counterintuitive for us," Ceyhun Eksin, a postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Tech, said in a press release.

Eksin and colleagues wanted to understand how much the dynamics of a disease is influenced by an infected individual. The team simulated how much individual behavior plays in the spread of disease, as well as how a person's behavior could affect an outbreak overall.

The team used a networked variation of game theory to test the susceptibility of healthy people against infected people. The results were unexpected. Healthy people who attempted to protect themselves were not able to stop the disease from spreading. On the other hand, if sick people took measures to avoid infecting others, than the illness could be eradicated.

This, according to Eksin, is where empathy comes in: "If an infected person really wants to attend a meeting at work, it's one thing if only one other person could be at risk. It may be a different thing if they could affect a whole office of susceptible people."

Every year around flu season, public health initiatives tend to focus on making sure everyone gets a flu shot or immunization. People are encouraged to wash their hands and to avoid people who are sick. At the end of an outbreak, though, people tend to think they are in the clear, when this is actually a time when the risk of getting sick can be at its highest.

According to the press release:

The empathy becomes especially important toward the end of an outbreak ... When the number of sick people is low, risk perception falls, leading susceptible people to reduce their precautions—and sick people to feel less concern about infecting others.

In an office or closed environment, everyone's behavior can affect one another. If a sick person decides to isolate, then no preventative measures need to be taken by the healthy individuals. We aren't always aware of our neighbors though, and their behavior could ultimately create a wave of newly infected individuals.

Obviously, this was a game theory simulation, not a study using real humans, so we still need more info to see if it applies in real-life environments. Humans are always more complicated than we give them credit for, but viruses and bacteria are often sneakier, too. Generally, this study should be taken as a good incentive for employers to encourage sick individuals to work from home and take part in meetings virtually if at all possible.

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Cover image via Leonid Mamchenkov/Flickr

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