Returning to the workplace after the pandemic


As the province moves to re-open its doors for business, there are many things to think about before and during this process to ensure the health and safety of both workers and customers.  Employers must assess their workplaces to identify where the risks of exposure to the virus exist and take steps to mitigate those risks.  When going through this procedure, it is important to include your workers, supervisors and Occupational Health Committee members.

The different elements that a business needs to look at before re-opening its doors include, but are not limited to, the following areas:

  • property management
  • psychological
  • ergonomics
  • social interaction standardization or expectations

Property management: Building owners and occupiers are encouraged to consider and implement the “safe six workplace readiness essentials” suggested by Cushman and Wakefield to ensure the health and safety of building users. These readiness essentials include:

  1. preparing workplace building;
  2. preparing the workforce;
  3. controlling access;
  4. creating and enforcing a social distancing plan;
  5. communicating effectively with workplace stakeholders for confidence; and
  6. reducing touch points while consistent cleaning is increased.

Employers need to educate their employees, customers and visitors on processes and measured approaches that will be upheld going forward. Signage communicating the new and different work standardization expectation should be posted and workplace policies should be enforced to limit the risk of spreading the pandemic.

  • Develop the necessary policies to manage your workplace, including policies around who can be at the workplace, how to address illness that arises at the workplace and how workers can be kept safe in adjusted working conditions.
    Government of Canada
  • Prior to resumption, facilities, premises and work areas should be adequately cleaned and disinfected. Implement frequent wipe-downs, utilize foggers or electrostatic cleaners, change cleaning agent to hospital grade product, increase fresh air calculation.
  • When employees return to the office, implement processes such as increased frequency of janitorial services, stagger remote work, increase availability of hand sanitizer, temporarily or permanently eliminate shared seating and increase shared space to conform to six feet standard physical distancing separation.
  • Separate or single entrance should be created for employees. Visitors’ access should be restricted. Minimize use of handles and physical interfaces at entrances and exits. Items like magazines, pens and papers from common areas should be removed to reduce contact. Chairs should also be limited in waiting areas. Regular temperature checks should be introduced.
  • The maximum number of people that should be in an elevator should be specified and communicated, considering six feet physical distancing as a standard to limit human to human transmission of COVID- 19 virus.
  • Commonly used high traffic areas should be marked or rearranged to meet the physical distancing recommendation, or use transparent plastic dividers to barricade work spaces and cubicles. Additions can be made to all the vents to include ultraviolent lights capable of killing microbes.
  • Employees should be divided into multiple teams (based on critical service), working different shifts, or set of days, or rotation, to ensure mandatory physical distancing during work hours.
  • The determination of what personal protective equipment (PPE) will be needed and where or how it will be dispensed should be determined and communicated. An extra measure can be to mandate the use of face masks if and where necessary.
  • The safe six readiness workplace essentials checklist by Cushman and Wakefield is a great focus guide for reopening the workplace.
    Safe Six Checklist
  • In the post-pandemic period, cases and outbreaks may likely occur. An isolation room should be set aside in the facility as part of the emergency response plan to deal with a potentially symptomatic worker. Working from home can be encouraged, when applicable.

 

Mental health: The large-scale quarantine measures, which essentially confined residents to their homes, are likely to have a negative psychosocial effect on residents. Employers should remind/encourage employees of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), where they can have access to competent professionals who will offer confidential services such as counselling of all forms, including relief from pandemic-related impact.

  • Human Resources department may want to review the current Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to ensure workers have updated access to needed emotional and mental health services during post pandemic.
  • Employees should encourage activities such as yoga, journaling thoughts, meditation, massage, et al. Another way of improving mental well-being is recognizing (root) causes that cause stress and knowing how to control our reactions to them.
  • Organizations should consider setting a minimum of 15 minutes aside daily to examine and evaluate personal mental health.
  • Each employer should communicate organizational changes to employees in a manner that reduces anxiety.

 

Communication: Communication must be issued around changes in policies, such as a work-from-home policy, travel policy, etc. Also, information about safety at the workplace should be provided for employees. It is essential to promote the daily practice of everyday preventive actions by using health messages and materials developed by credible public health sources, such as the Saskatchewan Health Authority, the Government of Saskatchewan (www.saskatchewan.ca) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

  • Employer will determine the percentage of workforce that will work remotely after the pandemic outbreak ends, while preparing to re-open the office, initiate the return to the office project process, such as prepare a project team, create a project plan to be effected, review policies and practices, prepare communications, review real estate requirements and changes, review legal and compliance requirements, review human resources and finance implications, review IT actions and changes and consider scenarios for the future.
  • Address all concerns and frequently asked questions regarding work schedules and other operational issues.
  • Workers must be educated and made aware of the requirement to report any health-related concerns to the organization’s medical team/clinic or Human Resources department.
  • Workers may need to stay home when they are sick, caring for a sick household member, or for children in the event of school dismissals. Planning for worker absences by developing flexible pandemic flu attendance and sick-leave policies will lead to a smooth post pandemic settlement process.
  • Below is a preparing to re-open the offices checklist culled from Gartner, 2020:
  • Employers should reinforce return to office policies and non-discriminatory principles and remind staff of zero tolerance of discrimination and harassment. Remind people that employees under quarantine can only come back to work after fully complying with the Government of Saskatchewan self-monitoring and self-isolation procedures.
    Province enhances COVID-19 prevention measures
    COVID-19 Heath care worker return to work assessment FAQ
  • Identify critical job functions and positions and plan for alternative coverage by cross-training staff (similar to planning for holiday staffing).
  • Creation of a strong social media plan to provide information to customers and help secure online business and revenue should be open for deliberation.
  • Identify space that can be used to separate sick people (if possible).

 

Socialization: Maintaining physical distance in the workplace can be challenging, but we should be reminded that physical distancing is a prevention method to slow the person-to-person transmission of COVID-19.

  • Employers should consider staggering shifts or introducing more shift rotation, to limit employee contact. Encourage employees to maintain physical distance from co-workers and customers.
  • Make supplies readily available for employees to disinfect their work stations and frequently touched surfaces (keyboards, door handles, telephones, etc.).
  • Mark the floor in queuing and waiting areas to clearly show the distance apart we should keep. Practice safe use of the lift/elevators, i.e. limiting the number of people so that the distance between them is six feet. Cafeteria use should be limited, or avoided.
  • The use of platforms or apps for virtual meetings and socialization can also be applied.

 

Ergonomics:  All forms of workplace ergonomics improvement process should be adhered to, in order to mitigate or eradicate risk factors that may lead to musculoskeletal injuries.  Implementing ergonomic solutions can make employees more comfortable and increase productivity.

  • Employers should review and update organization’s fitness or wellness program to ensure employees have quality work-life balance.
  • Employees should maintain proper body posture, sitting posture and workstation posture. Properly hydrate and engage in physical activities like walking, going to the gym, engaging in yoga, or jogging, with targeted goals in mind, like having a target of 6000 to 10000 walk steps per day.

 

References

  • Apollo Hospitals. Project Kavach. Life after lockdown (2020).
  • Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (Training and education) ccohs.ca.
  • CDC (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services): Get your workplace ready for pandemic flu (April 2020).
  • Cushman and Wakefield, Recovery readiness: a how-to- guide for re-opening your workplace.
  • Gartner 2020, return to the office toolkit.
  • Government of Canada website canada.ca.
  • Government of Saskatchewan website saskatchewan.ca.
  • Mckinsey & Company 2020, Workplace return.