How occupational health can help employers …
As the UK economy and society cautiously unlocks between now and the summer, managing ‘return to work’ will need to be a conversation that is about much more than just health and safety and ‘Covid-secure’ environments,
With the UK’s road map to exiting lockdown now in place, employers and employees alike will need to begin thinking about what work is going to look and feel like beyond Covid restrictions.
This may include needing to adapt to more regular working days, thinking about how to cope with busy places once again, and managing germ hyper-vigilance.
Many employers will be focused on providing reassurance and guidance to employees that workplaces are physically safe to return to, that they are ‘Covid secure’.
But, while that is important, the support being offered may need to be much greater than that. Employers will have to think about beyond physical health and safety when asking staff to return to workplaces and previous working conditions. The psychological impact of work beyond covid has to be acknowledged.
This may mean the need for a transitionary period which is likely to need more radical changes.
Coping with a return to the workplace
Many people have reported throughout the lockdown periods that they have suffered from sleep problems, including insomnia, poor quality or patchy sleep and, in some cases, unusual and vivid dreams.
As a consequence, many people have also reported feeling tired during the daytime. They have had poorer concentration levels, lower thresholds for being distracted from activities; their physical activity has perhaps reduced; perhaps they have gained weight.
A lot of the time these stresses and strains have been able to be masked by the fact that people have been working at home and potentially much more flexibly than before.
As ‘normality’ returns, however, there is no guarantee that such sleep problems will be resolved when unlocking starts, and many workplaces will need to get used to this.
Workers will not be the same as they were before the pandemic, and this position could go on for weeks or months in some cases.
Some workers may feel they are no longer “fit to do the job” or be worried about how they are going to cope with a return to more normal working schedules.
As well as this, after months of working from home and disrupted working patterns, workers may need time to get used to putting in an uninterrupted full-day’s work again.
Many workplaces may want to think about incorporating more flexible working methods into the working day.
It may even be that employers need to consider more radical changes to their historic business practices.
Wellbeing surveys, risk assessments ( including psychological risks ) and referrals to occupational health may further assist managers plan a strategic focussed approach to learning to work beyond covid.
Coping with busy places and crowds again
Going from almost 12 months of reduced social contact and enforced inactivity to now being encouraged to increase in-person connections both socially and occupationally might be a welcome relief for most people, but many may also struggle.
People have got used to community spaces being relatively quiet, streets having spaces to distance from each other, and car parks having available spaces in them, but this may soon end abruptly if there is a rush to reconnect.
For those who have been shielding for the last year, busy streets, shops and workplaces will require some readjustment and graded exposure, they are likely to induce overwhelming experiences.
Public transport will have to consider increased demand in services while allowing for social distancing rules to remain in place and commuting to work will no doubt be a source of strain and distress for many again soon enough.
Coping with hyper-vigilance around “germs”
Being vigilant about social contamination, handwashing and maintaining safe distances has been a primary concern for almost a year. Many people take comfort in maintaining such routines – and could become an important mental safeguard that helps individuals to go out and about when necessary.
The need for good hygiene and handwashing will not go away when unlocking starts, and, in fact, it is likely to be more important than ever during the first few weeks of increased social contact, particularly in workplaces. Clear Covid risk process and policy is critical when implementing return to work plans.
It is occupational clinicians who are specifically trained to understand workplaces, the associated risks, and how that impacts on individuals, the at-risk groups, and the rest of the working population.They are uniquely placed to give evidence-based advice on what actions employers and managers should take to make their workplaces safer, in addition to being able to frankly discuss with employees the risks that may remain following interventions and how to manage them.
Using Occupational health services to support staff returning to the workplace will add reassurance to staff and managers as everyone begins to readjust to the new “normal at work.”
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