Learning to work beyond Covid may bring multiple OH challenges



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, Professor Craig Jackson argues. 

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 and occupational health professionals during this transition period will, naturally, 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 significant considerations to think about beyond physical health and safety when asking staff to return to workplaces and previous working conditions.

This may mean the need for a transitionary period, including involving more breaks and even perhaps, as we shall see, more radical changes.

Coping with a return to 9-5

Many people have reported throughout the three 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 providing reassurance on safety, employers may therefore need to be offering support to help such individuals regain fitness levels where possible.

On top of 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 therefore want to think about incorporating more flexible working methods into the working day, for example power-nap breaks, flexible hours, some home-working, and staggered start times.

It may even be that employers need to consider more radical changes such as incorporating “half-day closing” for one day per week as a temporary measure to allow fatigued staff to refresh themselves mid-week.

It may even be that employers need to consider more radical changes such as incorporating ‘half-day closing’ for one day per week as a temporary measure to allow fatigued staff to refresh themselves mid-week.”

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 supermarkets 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 with social anxieties and a range of social “phobias” as well as those who have been shielding as best as possible for the last year, busy streets and shops will require some readjustment and graded exposure, should they become overwhelming experiences.

Shops and city centres could be as busy as both the run-up to Christmas and the January sales combined, and many may feel the need to stay away for their own good.

Public transport will no doubt fail to plan accurately for the increased demand in services while allowing for social distancing rules to remain in place, and commuting 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, hand-washing 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 hand-washing 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.

The need for good hygiene and hand-washing 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.”

As well as maintaining hand-washing habits, as an employer it might therefore be helpful to encourage others to keep doing it too and to continue using hand-sanitizer when out and about.

Many people may only be able to function and “cope” with increased levels of social activity after lockdown by using hygiene hyper-vigilance as their own personal psychological safety measure.

One psychosocial concern here for employers to consider is the risk of employees feeling shamed or embarrassed by others for continuing these practices as a coping mechanism.


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