Remote work soared during the initial stages of the pandemic, but now, some employers are bringing workers back to the office. Employees, however, are not necessarily considering this good news.
Two-thirds of respondents in a recent FlexJobs survey said that they would prefer to work remotely full-time after the pandemic. Fear of illness may have as much to do with their preference as the desire to continue working at home. In a recent poll conducted by Eagle Hill Consulting, only 40% of those surveyed said they felt their organization was “proactive about addressing concerns for the health of their workforce.”
But what if you can’t persuade your employer to let you work from home forever? Or, what if your job simply isn’t compatible with full-time remote work? If you’re headed back to the office and are concerned about staying healthy, here’s some advice on how to keep safe.
Preparing to Return Safely to Work
The first step in a successful transition back to the office is to gather information.
Start by asking your employer some questions.
If the thought of grilling your boss during a tough job market isn’t so appealing, think about it this way: you need this information in order to stay in compliance with your company’s policies as well as to keep yourself safe.
- What will the work schedule look like? Some employers may stagger work schedules to have fewer people in the building at one time. Others may allow employees to work a hybrid workweek—for example, two days in the office and three days at home.
- What safety protocols are in place? Depending on your job and local and state laws, employees may be required to wear masks at work. Companies may also put in place other safety precautions, such as physical distancing requirements, plexiglass barriers, access to hand sanitizer, and personal protective equipment. Employers may also ask questions about symptoms, take temperature checks, and, in some cases, require workers to be tested for coronavirus before entering the workplace.
- What if we need time off because of illness or caregiving responsibilities? The federal government established paid sick leave and expanded family leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). In addition, some employers have added or expanded their own programs. Your human resources representatives should be able to fill you in about leave options.
- How will we know if someone at work gets sick? The Society for Human Resources Management notes that employers have to carefully balance their obligations to protect worker safety (OSHA) and their responsibility to keep workers’ personal health information private (ADA, HIPAA). However, some employers are conducting contact tracing when one of their workers becomes ill.
Robin Elise Weiss, Ph.D., MPH, CPH, told The Balance via email that workers should advocate for proper protocols, stay knowledgeable and alert about case rates in their area, and know the recommendations for their industry. In addition, she suggested that employees consider volunteering for a task force to help ensure and enforce safety measures.
But what if workers feel unsafe in their environment? “The first place to start would be a conversation with their immediate supervisor,” said Weiss. “After that, HR. Some employees are being forced to take medical leave. Think outside the box and go to your supervisor with some creative solutions.”
However, according to Weiss, employees shouldn't wait for supervisors to come up with all the answers. “They may be so overwhelmed with all of the new regulations that thinking of something creative that works for you might be very last on their list,” she said.
Coping With Mental Health Challenges
In an email interview with The Balance, Geoffrey Hillback, LCSW and psychotherapist at New Jersey-based The Lukin Center, reported that he’s seeing a lot of clients impacted by returning to work and “regular life.” Often, this manifests as an adjustment disorder with either depression or anxiety.
Hillback said that employers can do many things to support their employees’ mental health—starting with asking themselves whether employees need to be in the physical office at all: “To force workers to come in only to do the same work they were doing from home is likely to make little sense to many employees and may lead to rumination around not being valued or heard as well as a sense of powerlessness.”
Regardless of their employers’ policies, there are things workers can do to safeguard their mental health, including exercise, meditation, and spending time in nature. Expressing frustrations can also be helpful, Hillback said, “especially when done in a manner that doesn’t lead to judgment, guilt, and/or negative self-talk.”
If your mental health is a concern, review these strategies for communicating your concerns to your supervisor.
Hillback also stressed the importance of avoiding rumination. “Repeatedly telling ourselves that things ‘shouldn’t be this way,’ using ‘all or nothing’ phrases like ‘always’ and ‘never,’ and judging ourselves for feeling the way we feel often perpetuate these feelings and minimize our ability or willingness to be proactive in positive ways that may improve our situation, our feelings about the situation, or, ideally, both,” he said.
Your Employer’s Responsibilities
Weiss emphasized that employers should put their employees first, and that they should have a team that monitors not only current case information, but recommendations for that industry and area.
She said, “When employers focus too much on the bottom line and not enough on the employee, they may inadvertently send the message that employees should come to work sick. Presenteeism is a real problem, both in terms of productivity and in terms of infectivity.”
In fact, remaining flexible may be the biggest boon to both productivity and employee health. Gallup research shows that three in five U.S workers who have been doing their jobs remotely during the pandemic would like to continue doing so once COVID-19-related restrictions are lifted.
But regardless of whether organizations feel that they can allow employees to work from home long term, employers should have a plan to keep their workers safe and connected.
Conduct a Risk Assessment of the Physical Office Space
If the building has been unoccupied for some time, this assessment should include taking steps to prevent employee exposure to mold, Legionella bacteria, and other contaminants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers a guide for creating a healthy work environment during and after the pandemic.
Implement and Document New Safety Protocols Before Employees Return to Work
This includes any changes to the physical space, such as staggering seating, or creating new barriers between desks. The CDC’s recommendations include creating physical space between employees, creating visual cues to help workers and clients adhere to social distancing protocols, discouraging handshaking, and wearing face coverings when physical distancing isn’t possible.
Create a Flexible and Compassionate Sick Leave Policy
Have—and communicate—a plan for how the organization will support workers who need leave if they get sick or need to care for a family member. Weiss also suggested hosting a flu shot clinic for staff and their families to help safeguard their health.
Accommodate High-Risk Employees
People with conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and sickle cell disease are at higher risk for complications due to the coronavirus, according to the CDC. Organizations should have a plan to support these employees. Weiss said, “Working from home is the obvious best choice for many people in a high-risk category.”
Be Proactive About Communication
Companies shouldn’t leave staff wondering what the company policy is on social distancing, leave, mask-wearing, etc. Employers should commit to keeping employees updated on health and safety and be specific about how they will inform them if a colleague gets sick.
Address Mental Health
The American Psychological Association (APA) recommends empowering employees with work flexibility and involvement in discussions about changes to the workplace.
The APA also suggests providing mental health training and resources for managers to help them support staff.
Adjusting to the Workplace
One of the many challenges of the pandemic is that there is no straightforward path for the future. Adjusting to returning to the workforce and living with a new normal will be a learning curve for both you and your employer.
With flexible working arrangements provided whenever possible, and with transparent communications, it will be easier to adjust to changes in the workplace. What’s most important, though, is to recognize that this is a stressful time, so identify your concerns, discuss those concerns with your employer, and get assistance if you need it. That way, you can help the transition back to the office go as smoothly as possible.