Occupational medicine specialist Prof John Gallagher outlines what employers need to consider when returning to the workplace.
In the coming weeks and months, workers will be returning to offices and facilities around the country as Covid-19 restrictions are eased. But following a period of work disruption for many under difficult circumstances, and with new safety measures introduced and ongoing uncertainty about the future, it will undoubtedly be a different workplace to the one employees left a few months ago.
Prof John Gallagher is an occupational physician and managing director of Cognate Health, as well as head of the Occupational Health Department for HSE South, based at Cork University Hospital. He spoke to me about some of the most important factors employers and employees will need to keep in mind as they begin to transition back to the workplace.
‘Try and get enough sleep, don’t overload on news and consider limiting how much time you spend on social media’
– JOHN GALLAGHER
What concerns might employees have right now?
One the biggest concerns we are hearing from employees is whether workplace conditions and policies comply with safety and health guidelines. People want to be sure that when they go back to the workplace, they are safe.
Returning to work is also causing a large degree of stress for many employees. Some have been seriously ill or experienced the death of a relative or friend, or are experiencing financial difficulties or problems with their personal relationships.
This, along with concerns about the risk of infection going back to work or changes to their job due to the implementation of measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, can bring high levels of stress, anxiety and fear, greater irritability, trouble sleeping and irrational thoughts.
How can employers take care of their staff when returning to the office?
The steps to be taken are set out quite clearly in the Government’s Return to Work Protocol and include physical changes to the workplace and administrative changes. The protocol is designed to support employers and workers to put measures in place that will prevent the spread of Covid-19. By actively and publicly adhering to the protocol, an employer will instantly alleviate the concerns of a lot of workers.
Firstly, a Covid-19 response plan does need to be drafted, as each company needs to know where and how their workers, customers and the general public might be exposed to Covid-19 in the business.
Some of my key takeaways from the protocol include the need for appropriate hygiene facilities. In addition, good respiratory hygiene and etiquette is also necessary and tissues, as well as bins and bags for their disposal, need to be provided in workplaces. The bins must also be emptied at regular intervals.
Physical distancing of two metres is to be maintained between people to minimise risk of transmission. Other key points include no-handshaking policies, identification of small teams who consistently work and take breaks together, and staggering of canteen use.
Contact logs need to be kept and preparations made in the event of a Covid-19 case occurring at work. The provision of information and training for staff is a priority.
Looking after your mental health during the Covid-19 crisis is also critically important, especially if you are still working from home. The protocol outlines that employers should put in place support for workers who may be suffering from anxiety or stress.
Also, look to start your day well with a walk before work or listen to a mindfulness podcast. Try and get enough sleep, don’t overload on news and consider limiting how much time you spend on social media and turning off alerts. Avoid alcohol and smoking excessively and maintain a healthy diet.
What are the most important things that need to be communicated to employees?
If you have been at home and are set to return to the workplace soon, there are a number of things to be mindful of.
In relation to the expectations of your employer, due to the phased return-to-work system, some businesses have opened, some will open in the coming weeks and others won’t open until phase four. Some will choose to partially reopen and some employers may want their staff to continue to work from home, possibly indefinitely.
You will need to know if temporary work-at-home arrangements are to be made more permanent as there may be contractual and other obligations to consider. Working from home does not mean any lessening of an employer’s responsibilities in key areas such as health and safety, working time and employment law.
Also look at how your employer has prepared the workplace for the return of the workforce. There are two aspects to this: risk management measures for the workplace, so that the risk of Covid-19 transmission in the workplace is reduced; and measures ensuring that staff are fit to return to work. You should enquire about this with your employer, who will have set out a workplace plan.
A key part of return-to-work planning is a requirement for employers to ensure staff are free of Covid-19 symptoms and also whether certain staff in high-risk groups need to be accommodated.
What accommodations might employers need to consider?
Employers are required to assess all staff returning to the office workplace three days prior to their return by means of a simple questionnaire. Broadly speaking, in terms of health status, you are likely to be in one of three categories: you have no health issues, you are in a high-risk group, or you are in a very vulnerable group.
If you are in an elevated risk group, your needs will be considered on a case-by-case basis and are judged on the clinical risk assessment and the job risk assessment. Working from home is preferable, but in cases where it is essential to the company that you return to the workplace, then you might, for example, be placed in preferred social distancing locations and tasks.
If you are in the very vulnerable or cocooning group, you must continue as you are at present until the guidance changes and the national Covid-19 picture becomes clearer.
Where can people go to learn more about this?
If you want to know how the risk groups are defined, then visit the HSE website. Also, I like the Government’s In This Together campaign, which has lots of advice and tips on how employers and workers can look after their mental wellbeing, stay active and stay connected.
If you are still working from home, the Health and Safety Authority has an excellent risk assessment form for work stations that can be found here.