How to Reduce Sickness in the Workplace
COVID-19 has transformed the economic and social landscapes, and the implications are still being felt. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 56% of the workforce in the U.S. holds jobs that are commensurate with remote work. The workforce nearly reached 7 in 10 employees working remotely or all of the time during the peak of COVID-19 shelter-in-place mandates. And while some of these will return to working from permanent office locations, many workers are not ready to return to their former workspaces—only one in four indicate they are willing to do so.
Workers Reluctant to Return to Offices Due to COVID-19
These concerns make sense due to the danger COVID-19 poses. A little more than half of the workforce cite COVID-19 has the reason they prefer to continue working from home—22% listing it as the only reason and another 27% listing COVID-19 along with other personal preferences. To get workers back into offices and their workspaces, businesses will need to implement wellness policies and reconfigure workspaces to reduce the likelihood of sickness in the workplace. This also includes on-demand coworking spaces, day offices, and meeting rooms.
Mandate to Protect Workers in the Workplace
In its guidelines for opening up America again, the White House charges employers to “develop and implement appropriate policies” to keep workers and patrons safe from COVID-19. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA) mandates certain standards to protect workers from novel contagion. It states, “employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause the death or serious physical harm to [its] employees.”
Dealing with Returning Workers in the Workplace
Generally, employers are prohibited from asking employees about their health due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). However, COVID-19 presents unique circumstances, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission confirmed that employers have the right to request health information from workers during COVID-19. They can ask employees if they are experiencing fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, or a sore throat. Following are four COVID-19 use cases with which businesses need to be familiar:
1. Unconfirmed COVID-19 Cases
For employees with potential COVID-19 symptoms such as a fever or a cough but no confirmation that they were infected with COVID-19, employers can allow them to return to work under the following circumstances:
• At least three days have passed since recovery with no fever for a minimum of 72 hours (without the use of any fever-reducing medications)
• Respiratory symptoms have improved
• At least seven days have passed since the beginning of any symptoms
2. Confirmed COVID-19 Cases Without Symptoms
For employees who have been confirmed with COVID-19 through a positive test administered by a medical professional, employees must remain in isolation following their diagnosis. They can return after the following has been met:
• After at least seven days have passed since the date of their first positive COVID-19 test
• They have not become ill
• For an additional three days after the employee ends isolation, they must continue to limit contact—six feet away—with others
• The employee must wear a mask or other covering of their nose and mouth, limiting the potential of dispersal of respiratory secretions
3. Confirmed COVID-19 Cases with Illness but No Hospitalization
For employees who have tested positive to COVID-19 by a medical professional and become mildly or moderately ill but did not require hospitalization, they can return to work under the following conditions:
• At least three days have passed since their recovery without abnormal fever for a minimum of 72 hours
• Employees have no significant temperature for 72 hours without the use of any fever-reducing medicines
• Respiratory symptoms have improved
• No continuing illness (no symptoms of COVID-19)
• Employee has had two confirmed negative COVID-19 tests administered by a medical professional at least 24 hours apart
4. Confirmed COVID-19 Cases with Hospitalization
For employees with confirmed COVID-19 tests who required hospitalization, the CDC recommends rigorous testing before they can return to work since they may experience longer periods of viral detection compared to those with mild or moderate symptoms. In the case of those compromised with immune deficiency, these employees take longer periods of time to shed the disease. The following are recommended before the employee can return to work:
• Retesting of workers is required to verify they are no longer shedding the virus
• The worker’s healthcare provider needs to verify testing and provide return-to-work authorizations
Tips to Reduce Sickness in the Workplace
Knowing how to deal with sick workers is just the starting point for businesses dealing with workers coming back to the office as COVID-19 restrictions ease. Following are some of the policies businesses and workspace providers can do to reduce sickness in their workplaces:
1. Taking the temperature of employees before they enter the office is an excellent precaution. The only caveat is that asymptomatic workers could still spread the virus around the office.
2. For staff members who become ill during the workday, they should be sent home immediately.
3. Workspaces will likely require greater distancing—at least six feet. This may require substantial reorganization and reduction of workspace.
4. Just as retailers have installed plastic partitions separating cashiers from customers, the same needs to be considered for separating workspaces from each other.
5. Regular cleaning of surfaces is a must—workspaces, conference rooms, bathrooms, kitchen areas. Once a day is not enough. This means organizations may need to increase their budget for third-party cleaning services.
6. Masks and other personal protective equipment may not be needed all of the time, but offices will need to have an inventory available in the event a worker becomes ill and for interactions with third parties who visit the office.
7. For individual workspaces, in addition to regular cleaning, businesses and workspace providers need to provide workers with sanitation wipes and other means for doing extra cleaning in workspaces.
8. High-touch traffic areas need to be cleaned regularly—everything from doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, phones, toilets, faucets, and sinks.
Getting Back to the Office
As restrictions around COVID-19 ease and workers return to offices and coworking spaces, there is certain to be a level of reluctance and caution. Businesses and workspace providers will need to ensure they have documented workplace sanitization policies and implemented cleaning processes. The aforementioned is a good starting point.