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The Top 5 Questions Employers Ask Our Corporate Health Team About Returning to Work

Supporting organisations thinking about re-opening

Since we have re-opened the Clinic, our Corporate Health Team have received a number of queries from our clients who are thinking about re-opening. Our clients have been thinking about re-opening safely as restrictions ease in the Covid-19 pandemic. We understand that we’re still amid uncertain times and we encourage frequent and active communication with your teams to ensure that new processes and protocols are embedded effectively in the workplace.

Our board of Occupational Health Specialists and Doctors have listed their advice below which is all evidence based at the time of writing. Also take a look at our recent article on the basic principles workplaces should adopt when they re-open (link)

1.Who should return to the workplace?

Not everyone, and not all at once.

Phased return of your workforce may seem counterproductive as organisations want to re-open. However, with new workplace behaviours we are all starting to to adopt, it is the safest thing to do for your business and employees.

It’s best to have your people return gradually making physical distancing less of a challenge. This will also help you to test physical or workflow changes to minimize disruption as your teams return to the workplace over subsequent weeks and months.

We would advise that employees at higher risk of Covid-19 should remain working remotely where possible until the amount of community transmission is very low or until we reach herd immunity (still some months away). Those below who are:

  • From a BAME background
  • Over 60 years of age
  • Who are obese
  • Have chronic lung or heart disease, diabetes or kidney disease

Employees with children at home or those who lack alternative childcare, and employees for whom transport could pose a significant risk of exposure, should continue or at least be encouraged to work remotely if possible.

One option which can help avoid discrimination and challenge is for employers to simply allow employees to state their comfort status on returning to work. We encourage employers to speak with their staff and understand their position, without asking whether this is due their age, ethnicity, chronic disease, transportation concerns or childcare.

2.How can we protect our staff who come to work?

We appreciate that times are difficult and that employees taking time off has some negative impacts on businesses, sick-leave policies can be expensive. However, the cost of inadvertently allowing infected employees into the workplace could well be much greater.

  • Effectively exclude individuals at the highest risk of transmitting the disease.
  • Supporting them to stay at home.
  • Ask your staff vital questions on their return to work

Most people do not have a fever or any symptoms at all (78% of people are asymptomatic) when they are first exposed to Covid-19, it is essential for members of staff to monitor their temperatures consistently and important for employers to be aware of the monitoring results before individuals return to work. We recommend asking some of the following questions:

  • Are you aware of any known exposure to Covid-19?
  • Have you had any symptoms of Covid-19? (including a cough, fever, shortness of breath, muscle pain, sore throat, new loss or sense of taste and small and diarrhoea)

To make this easier, we have developed a “Symptom Tracker” App to support organisations in their return to work.

  • Consider restricting visitor access to the workplace to reduce potential for exposure.
  • Continue to encourage handwashing, provide face-masks, reconfigure your workplace to enable physical distancing, enhance your internal and external cleaning & disinfection regimes. Increase access to hand and surface sanitisers and make workplaces more open with less touch points (door handles).
  • Ensure that anyone who works within shared surfaces are using the right cleaning products (surface sanitisers) once they have finished using the shared surfaces. Restrict employee usage of shared office equipment (keyboards, headsets). Water fountains/ice machines can spread the virus and should be turned off. The virus can also be spread through hand dryers in bathrooms and supply paper towels instead.
  • If an employee is found to have Covid-19, you must inform those who may have been exposed to this individual at work during the two days prior to the “diagnosis”. Employers must also maintain the infected employees confidentiality through not sharing their personal details.

3.What role can testing play in making workplaces safer?

Testing plays a huge role in assuring a safe return to the workplace. There has been a vast amount of media coverage on testing and unfortunately with that a lot of bad press. Testing must only be carried out by an accredited provider with access to Occupational Health Doctors to manage the outcome from the results.

Any Clinic providing testing should be registered and regulated by the CQC and be offering Public Health England (PHE), MHRA approved and CE marked tests. Both Swab and Antibody tests must be carried out by healthcare professionals in a safe environment.

For more information on our Corporate and Individual Covid-19 Testing service, please get in touch.

4.What should we do if we discover an infected employee in the workplace?

In the early stages of Covid-19 many individuals have few or no symptoms and it is likely that businesses could have exposure despite the employer’s best efforts. If someone (an employee or visitor) is suspected of having Covid-19 then you should do the following:

  • Immediately leave the workplace and be advised to seek testing or medical attention through https://111.nhs.uk/covid-19/
  • Deep clean your premises and increase air flow throughout the building as much as possible.
  • Identify any and all employees who spent 10 minutes with the infected person during the two days before symptoms began/Covid-19 was detected (even if the individuals remained at a 2m distance). Those employees should ideally leave the workplace, self-quarantine and monitor their symptoms until 14 post-exposure. Employees who have had passing contact (in a hallway or elevator), need not self-quarantine.

5.How can we meet employees’ growing mental and emotional health needs?

The several months passing have taken their toll on everyone for a number of difference reasons. Many have suffered profound losses during the pandemic and have not had the proper process to grieve, whilst almost all of us have experienced loneliness. Evidence has shown that survivors and their families have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and that there are more cases of anxiety and depression.

Access to mental health services was often poor prior to the pandemic and needs will be far greater now. Research has shown that as many as 65% of people are anxious about returning to their workplace. Social distancing being the most common concern (reported by 46%) of employees. This along with, lockdown having taken a toll on everyone for many different reasons. Some may have adjusted well and are now having to adjust to returning to work. We do know that access to psychological wellbeing and support services for organisations was often poor prior to the pandemic but the needs for organisations to have this vital support in place will be much greater now.

Some ways in which you can support your teams emotionally during this time:

  • Consider setting up virtual social networks to help address isolation
  • Train mental health champions to identify employee mental health needs in the remote workforce and make appropriate referrals.
  • Have an “open-door” policy where staff members can air any concerns they may have, make suggestions and feedback on their circumstances.
  • Consider each individuals family and childcare responsibilities.
  • Encourage exercise and time away from work to support your staff and their emotional health.
  • Seek external help where necessary.

We have some further information on supporting your teams here.

The Whitehall Clinic offers virtual psychological and mental wellbeing support. Our Consultant Psychologist, Dr. Linda Barker supports individuals and organisations manage their mental wellbeing.

Now more than ever, individuals are aware of their physical and mental health and wellbeing. Whether this is access to a Corporate Health Programme, Virtual Psychological Support, Screening Services or Annual Flu Jabs your workforce needs to know that you have a partner in place to support them and their facilities.