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Go to work, don’t go to work? That is the question

It’s two years ago that Matt Lucas cheekily impersonated Boris Johnson explaining the confusing lockdown rules of the time. Yet uncertainty still prevails as employers decide whether, and to what extent, their people should be back together in the workplace. Well, they should be guided, suggests IOSH’s     Dr Karen Michell, by those lessons the pandemic taught us – they will not only help protect workers returning to work now but also in the face of future infection threats

The Covid-19 pandemic is not over and although severe illness and death are declining, we are still seeing new Covid-19 cases with the continued possibility of new variants. Yet, globally, societies are rightly learning to live with Covid-19. Government restrictions have been lifted and the resounding message now is to return to work.

Yet, this straightforward message has raised concern and confusion for both employers and workers. “Should I go to work when unwell?” they ask. “How do I know if I have influenza or Covid?” “Can I continue to work from home?” There’s a lot of uncertainty. The interesting thing about all this for me, as an occupational health professional, is that these are not new concerns. They were raised pre-Covid for various reasons and have been highlighted again as a consequence of how we adapted and worked at the height of the pandemic. Employers and workers alike are looking for guidance on these issues to ensure a safe return to the workplace.

As a communicable disease, Covid-19 can be compared with influenza and even the common cold. All are communicable, caused by viruses and are transmitted from person to person. The significant difference is that when the Covid-19 pandemic struck it was a new, highly contagious and virulent virus for which we had no herd immunity. Initially, preventing death and severe disease required drastic measures to stop transmission, which resulted in national lockdowns and travel bans, with the call to stay at home. Through trial and error, we have developed a better understanding of the virus and how to prevent its transmission using vaccination programmes and non-pharmaceutical interventions.

Lessons learnt

These lessons learnt have enabled us to safely relax social restrictions and physically get back into the workplace. Potentially, they could also help us control the transmission of other communicable diseases when we’re working alongside other people. Our approach to going to work when feeling unwell should be based on: how well one feels; whether you could perform a day’s work; the symptoms one has; and is there the possibility to work from home as a precaution?

The current call from governments is to get people back to work safely and to maximise the use of office space. For many workers this may mean the return to previously overcrowded and poorly ventilated workspaces – key factors in the transmission of communicable diseases. Organisations can instil worker confidence by reviewing their occupancy and ventilation status and by making necessary adjustments to ensure better quality workspaces. Flexible and hybrid work arrangements will contribute to reducing occupancy, which will aid social distancing and may help improve ventilation.

But, realistically, working from home is not an option for all and many categories of workers need to physically be at the coalface. While workers in the gig economy may have to return to the workplace or face loss of earnings, these vulnerable workers need to understand when they should stay at home and when it is considered safe to work, thereby ensuring the wellbeing of both themselves and their co-workers (as well as their customers).

To empower workers to remain at home, when necessary, they need to understand the symptoms and transmission risks associated with communicable disease and be assured of financial protection if they can’t work. Employers might well find it necessary to adjust sickness absence policies to accommodate these factors. As long as vulnerable workers are required to stay at home and lose wages they will continue to go into work. The employer needs to make it possible for them to be off duty.

Flexible approach

There needs to be a degree of flexibility and creativity in all of this. The offer of flexible or hybrid working is a possibility for many workers but for others it is not. For managers, the challenge will lie in their ability to adapt to their new world of work. The focus should not just be on being at work, or ‘bums on seats’ but rather driven by performance and outputs.

But working from home is not the only measure that can be used to prevent the transmission of communicable diseases in the workplace. We should remember the other lessons we’ve learned during the pandemic and:

  • Continue to promote vaccination
  • Improve ventilation and control occupancy to reduce transmission risk
  • Maintain good workplace hygiene (eg hand sanitizers, frequent cleaning schedules)
  • Encourage personal hygiene (eg hand washing, coughing into an elbow)
  • Continue to promote lateral flow testing based on symptomatology, with the cost covered by the employer when needed for work purposes
  • Remember that not everyone can work safely from home, that flexibility is needed to create models that benefit all
  • Establish an organisational culture that reflects an environment where workers feel empowered to take responsibility for their wellbeing, are provided with information so they can make informed decisions and where they feel supported by management
  • Review current policies to continue to address issues related to Covid-19 and other communicable diseases, like influenza.

The continued implementation of controls that proved effective during the pandemic will continue to protect workers, especially during seasonal outbreaks. This should empower employers and their workers to make the right decisions, not only reducing the risk of exposure to Covid-19 but also to other communicable diseases.

Dr Karen Michell
IOSH Research Programme Lead (Occupational Health)

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Jeremy Waterfield
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