The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly challenged us from a health standpoint, but the challenges with regards to the business standpoint is now at a pivotal place. As we factor in new considerations to adapt to life in phase 2, employers are beginning to ease their workers back into the office. With this comes a new set of implications to prepare for, and creating a safe workplace environment for employees to return to is one of them. Read on as we outline 3 of the issues that you may face as an employer, as well as what you can do to address them.
New back to office issues for employers to consider
During this period of transition back into the workplace, employers will have 3 key issues to consider as the workplace reopens. These issues chiefly concern the well-being and health of your employees as a result of the pandemic and resultant circuit breaker.
1. Increased risk of exposure
The main issue at hand is undoubtedly the one that is on our minds - how will the relaxation of social distancing measures affect our risk of exposure? Naturally, our employees will have the same concerns, that heading back into the workplace could increase the risk of infection. With the start of phase 2, and workplaces reopening, it is inevitable that there will be significantly more human traffic, which would likely mean an increase in the number of infections due to greater community transmission.
Employees who are more vulnerable due to their age, or have pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, will have greater concerns for their own health and safety1. Even for employees who are in good health, their worry of being exposed is not necessarily lessened, as there is still a concern of exposure for their loved ones. This constant worry adds to your employees’ stress and anxiety levels, which could affect their mental health and work performance. As an employer, it is essential to take the necessary precautions to ensure the safety of your employees, while simultaneously reassuring them to set their minds at ease.
2. Greater levels of stress and anxiety
As mentioned earlier, higher levels of mental stress comes hand in hand with greater health concerns. Employers will similarly have to address greater levels of stress and anxiety that employees might have developed as a result of the circuit breaker. Due to enforced telecommuting that was brought on by the circuit breaker, we have observed a growing trend of an inability to disconnect from work when telecommuting, as well as the “always on” culture. In fact, according to our 360 well-being survey conducted between January and April this year, this sentiment was echoed by a majority of our participants in Singapore. 60% of our respondents felt that telecommuting made their workday longer, while 72% of them felt that they were “always on”.
Beyond work-related matters, loneliness is another issue that contributes to stress and anxiety in your employees. With the circuit breaker keeping most of us isolated from loved ones outside our families, some employees may not have been able to engage in healthy interactions or receive support from the people that they are close to, leading to greater isolation and anxiety. The results from our 360 well-being survey also support this, with 57% of our Singapore respondents reporting that they felt isolated from others, while 52% felt that they lacked companionship.
While we focus on the all-important issue of preventing new infections, employers should also not forget about the mental toll that the pandemic could have had on their employees. At Cigna, we believe in “Whole Person Health”, the idea that an individual’s physical and mental health are interconnected. As an employer, it is imperative that your employees’ mental health needs are not neglected, especially during these changing circumstances.
3. Adapting to the new normal
The final issue is about the transition into a “new normal” working life. Even though the circuit breaker has been lifted, life will not go back to the way it was before. Instead, a “new normal” has emerged, with many new rules and adjustments being made to ensure everyone’s safety. The workplace is one of the major areas where these changes will be made, and employers have the responsibility to clearly communicate to their employees just what the “new normal” working arrangements will be like. This will help to manage expectations and ease any concerns that employees could potentially have.
Suggested back to workplace measures to employ
1. Ensure the health and safety of employees
As mentioned, the most immediate concern to address is to ensure that your employees can return to work safely. As such, the following measures are focused on this.
In line with government advice, telecommuting should still be practiced as much as possible, to limit the number of employees present in the workplace. If some employees need to be present, prioritise high-risk employees to be the ones to telecommute. If telecommuting is not possible, another option is to rotate and stagger staff and shifts. Keeping the shifts and teams consistent would also make it easier for contact tracing and quarantining. Another viable alternative is to allow employees back in waves, with the more essential employees returning first2.
Beyond limiting the number of employees, there are other on-site measures that employers should adopt. The most pressing would be to develop new workplace protocol and make the required accommodations for a safe working environment. For instance, social distancing is mandatory, thus, plans for a new office layout have to be in place before the reopening. In the case of a suspected infection, there will also need to be procedures in place to deal with the situation.
In addition, we can also consider other simple changes to the workplace to further keep our employees safe. These could include staggering breaks by teams, catering packed lunches so employees can avoid lunch crowds and placing sanitiser dispensers around the office.
Educating and reminding employees to adopt good health and hygiene practices is equally important as these practices, like washing and sanitising hands regularly, are effective in preventing infection. These reminders can easily be sent via memos and emails to all employees. More subtle reminders such as posters in the toilet and on notice boards also help to reinforce the message.
While the procedures focused on transforming the workplace are important, keeping an eye on the long-term situation is also a good move. You could revisit the company’s healthcare plans and benefits to see if it adequately covers your employees’ physical health needs. This helps ensure that employees remain healthier so they do not fall into the high-risk group.
2. Help reduce stress and anxiety levels in employees
Reducing stress and anxiety is often a task that is easier said than done. Nonetheless, there is much that we can strive for when attempting to work towards it. A good start can entail not exacerbating existing worries, should there be any. Consider, for example, making it a policy to streamline your company’s telecommuting process, so that employees will be less likely to stress out over having to work after hours. Implementing strict work boundaries and incentivising employees to stay invested in their work-life balance can be useful. Taking the proper precautions to create a safe work environment for them to return to can also allow them to have a peace of mind when doing so.
Additionally, it is important that our employees are aware of the resources that are available for their mental health support. One way to do this is to review the company’s existing healthcare plans to ensure that they are comprehensive in covering your employees’ needs and well-being. Working with a primary care provider can also be beneficial in providing the relevant individuals with timely support3. Ultimately, the goal is to foster a workplace culture that values mental health - where employees are aware of its importance and are unafraid to seek help when needed.
3. Focus on a smooth transition into the “new normal”
To allow for a smooth transition, clear communication and transparency between management and the staff is key. As employers, the first priority should be to update your employees on the plans and changes to be put in place as part of the “new normal”. Should this new workplace model be adopted permanently, it would be essential to communicate this as well. Also ensure that your employees are kept apprised of any changes and updates to the workplace situation, while simultaneously giving them the opportunities to provide feedback should they choose to do so.
Over to you
As we gradually reopen the nation, it is essential for every single one of us to practice social responsibility to ensure that we do not trigger another wave of infections. Employers have a critical role to play in this, since the office is potentially an area where a cluster can re-emerge. More than that, we also have a responsibility to our own employees to keep them safe and healthy. With these measures, we can hopefully strike a balance between re-opening the economy, managing the pandemic and keeping our employees healthy, all at the same time.
1. Velez, A. (2020). Preparing workplaces for the 'new normal' amidst COVID-19 concerns. BenefitsPRO.
2. Mann, C., & Spell, M. (2020). Planning for the ‘New Normal’ of the Reopened Workplace.
3. Velez, A. (2020). Preparing workplaces for the 'new normal' amidst COVID-19 concerns. BenefitsPRO.