Three worker health wins for a successful return to the office

As your business returns to face-to-face work, employee health should be top of the list. These three ideas are a well of wellbeing for your workplace.

As your business returns to face-to-face work, employee health should be top of the list. These three ideas are a well of wellbeing for your workplace.

There’s no hope of returning to ‘business as usual’ anytime soon – Europe’s economy is not forecast to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2022. And the pandemic’s economic impact has affected countries as unevenly as their recovery prospects.

Wherever you are, government health policy plays a critical role in the national recovery and how and when businesses can open their doors. All businesses face hard decisions on how to protect employee health best. If you’re in the market for innovative options, here are three ideas to consider.

Clearing the office air

Advice in many countries says building managers should consider installing plexiglass between workstations and in front of high traffic areas like counters. Dr. Niket Sonpal, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at New York’s Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, points out it’s not easy to create optimal working conditions. Space is also an issue. “There are a lot of bottlenecks when it comes to entering a corporate building. When you get to the front desk, you have to scan in or show ID, so social distancing gets diminished.”

Even when circumstances are not ideal, there’s a lot businesses can do. Organizations who own their building could upgrade the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems to hospital-grade standards. High-efficiency filters and Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) disinfection can limit virus spread, although it’s challenging to add UVGI to an existing system.

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Air filtering can be highly effective with the right type of filter. High-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) air filters can capture over 99 percent of virus particles. These filters, used in labs and industrial clean rooms, need higher air pressure than typical commercial systems. Using the Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) scale to measure filter effectiveness, trade bodies like the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers recommend air filters with a MERV 13 rating or higher.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also recommends some less costly steps to thwart coronavirus spread.

WHO advises using natural ventilation – opening windows if possible – and operating air conditioning systems for two hours before and after there being people in your building, alongside a range of other measures.

But in its November 2020 report, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control notes many countries recommend building owners run their HVAC systems continuously, including evenings and weekends.

Reduced working hours suit businesses and staff

If your business is facing having to let some staff go, make sure you’ve considered all the options first – for your company’s good and the wellbeing of your staff. German businesses have been encouraged to reduce workers’ hours rather than making them redundant, with the government making up 60 percent of their pay for their lost hours. People are not forced onto welfare, and employers can avoid expensive, time-consuming hiring when they restart operations. Olaf Scholz, Germany’s Financial Minister and Vice-Chancellor, described the scheme, known as Kurzabeit, as “Germany’s greatest economic and socio-political act.”

While most countries don’t have this kind of state support available, businesses could still consider whether they can keep employees on the payroll but reduce their hours. On top of not having to re-hire when business picks up, Employees in challenging, salaried jobs on average wish they had the option to work fewer hours. Reduced working hours are also linked with higher productivity and improved employee psychological wellbeing.

Educate carefully around vaccines and testing

As vaccine distribution rolls out globally, WHO and national health organizations like the US’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decide who goes first.

Early access to the vaccine may lend a false sense of security and tempt organizations and workers to let down their guard.

According to Dr. Sonpal, “A vaccine doesn’t mean that we’re in the clear because we don’t know for how long it’s going to be effective.”

Organizations may be able to sponsor COVID-19 vaccination clinics, like some sponsor flu vaccination clinics. Sonpal warns, “When people get the vaccine, they need to be educated that this doesn’t mean you can run around without a mask. You’re not protected until you have a concentration of antibodies and their protective properties have kicked in. It’s going to have to be well planned and carefully crafted for every corporate structure that’s going to do this.”

Sonpal is not keen on using tests to determine whether someone should be allowed back to work. “The problem with tests is that it’s all dependent upon risks, exposures and time. It’s very pricey and not accurate. Tests are useful to determine who’s positive. However, if you’re negative, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you weren’t exposed and are not incubating. Continuous testing doesn’t make sense.”

Finding the best of both worlds

Sonpal thinks bringing workers back requires a hybrid model with people working in the office and remotely. In the building, take temperatures and have strict screening in which workers are asked to verify they don’t have any symptoms, haven’t been exposed to anybody with symptoms and haven’t traveled.

He goes on to say, “Prudence is key. 2020 has shown people can work remotely. To bring people back may seem like a good idea to get the gears of industry moving, but it could also cause more damage to the business.”

Be conservative and remain vigilant, he advises. Scale things back and accept that for now, we still don’t have all the answers.

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