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Planning for a safe return to work during the pandemic

January 28, 2022
By The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS)

A hybrid workplace model can result in higher job satisfaction due to the flexibility it offers. (blacksalmon/Adobe Stock)
This commentary was originally posted on OHS Canada, a sister magazine of Talent Canada.

As people in Canada contend with COVID-19 and its variants, plans for returning to work are evolving along with public health measures.

As much as we’d like to imagine a near-future without COVID-19, experts suggest it is something we’ll be dealing with — and adapting to — for some time.

When planning for a return to work during the pandemic, employers must consider not only workers’ physical safety from COVID-19, but their psychological safety as well.

Since each workplace is unique, employers should consider the personal risk factors and the needs of their workers when thinking about how to prepare them for a safe return to the workplace.

Anticipating concerns

People in Canada are experiencing increased stress, fear, anxiety, isolation, and other challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, which may increase as people return to the workplace.

Work factors that might impact mental health include concerns about the risk of being exposed to the virus at work, taking care of personal and family needs while working, managing a changed workload, or adapting to a different workspace or schedule.

Understanding the true concerns about returning to the workplace can help you set up appropriate controls. Creating a psychologically safe workplace can help your staff work through these concerns.

Surveys can be helpful in identifying concerns that can be addressed before workers return to the workplace.

Educate and train managers, supervisors, and workers to recognize when someone needs additional support. Ensure managers and supervisors are well-informed on how to support workers. Regular check-ins can make a world of difference.

A layered approach is sometimes referred to as a “Swiss cheese model” — although a single measure may have holes in it, the barrier becomes stronger with each slice (layer) of protection added.

Consider the risks

One way to increase workers’ comfort level with returning to work is to conduct a risk assessment and communicate a detailed COVID-19 safety plan that considers and addresses the identified hazards.

Employers should work with their health and safety committee or representative to identify activities where workers are in close contact with others (less than two metres apart), in crowded places, in indoor closed spaces with poor ventilation, and in activities requiring forceful exhalation (like heavy labour or speaking loudly) and with objects touched by others.

Don’t forget to include services provided by third parties and interaction with external customers or the public.

Consider the personal risk factors of your workers and how they might impact the risk and potential control measures when returning to the workplace.

  • Do any have known pre-existing medical conditions that put them at higher risk for severe disease or outcomes?
  • Are there workers who live together, carpool or take public transit to work?
  • Are there language, socio-economic, or other accessibility barriers to assess?

These personal risk factors may increase the likelihood of a severe outcome or increase the risk of transmission outside of work; therefore, additional precautions may be required.

Follow the guidance provided by your local public health authorities, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), and your jurisdictional occupational health and safety regulator.

A layered approach

Once the hazards and risks of COVID-19 have been identified and evaluated, implement appropriate preventative measures using the hierarchy of controls: elimination, substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment.

Use a layered approach that includes multiple individual public health measures in your safety plan, adjusting the plan as local public health measures change.

A layered approach is sometimes referred to as a “Swiss cheese model” — although a single measure may have holes in it, the barrier becomes stronger with each slice (layer) of protection added. 

No single control measure is 100 per cent effective on its own, but with each added layer of control, the risk of exposure gets lower.

Monitor the public health measures required in your setting and discuss the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccination with your workers.

Make sure that no new hazards will be created as a result of any new control measures. Continue to evaluate how effective  your workplace COVID-19 safety plan and controls are, and make changes as needed.

Return to Work: What Your Employees Want

Communicate clearly and regularly

Some workers may have concerns about returning to the workplace.

Develop a communication strategy using multiple methods to provide information, receive feedback, and to encourage discussion with everyone. State your commitment to health and safety and contact workers frequently to provide updates.

Let them know as far in advance as possible before the date of their expected return to the workplace so they have a chance to mentally prepare.

Review the COVID-19 safety plan before workers arrive on site and discuss how they will be expected to follow it.

Include information on any reduced or suspended services and discuss any anticipated changes in how work activities will be performed. Identify how workers will be trained before performing new or modified work tasks. Refresher training should be provided for all updated policies and work procedures.

When communicating information, make sure it is readily accessible and in languages to best support your workforce.

Use information from credible and trusted sources, including the PHAC and your local public health authority.

Work 4.0: The future of work is hybrid, personalized

Consider a hybrid workplace model

According to Statistics Canada, approximately four in 10 workers in Canada are in jobs that can likely be done remotely under normal circumstances. Does this include your workplace?

Many workers want the flexibility of continuing to work remotely. In a survey conducted by PwC Canada in July 2020, just one in five Canadian workers indicated they want to return to their workplace full time once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

Employers may want to consider a hybrid workplace model, which combines the flexibility of working from home with the advantages provided by having workers together in a workplace.

A hybrid workplace model can result in higher job satisfaction due to the flexibility it offers. It helps employees reclaim some of the time they would otherwise spend commuting, and work with less distractions from co-workers.

Being in a physical workplace part of the time can provide more opportunities for collaboration, innovation, brainstorming and sharing ideas and information with co-workers. It can encourage team-building through face-to-face meetings and fostering personal connections, which builds trust.

If the hybrid model is an option for your workplace, you’ll want to consider scheduling, locations for specific tasks, workplace configuration, ergonomics, technology to keep workers connected while working remotely, and how to encourage disconnecting from work at the end of the day.

How many days per week do workers need to report to the workplace? Once a week? Three or four days? You may prefer a monthly schedule where the entire team is on site on certain days to collaborate.

In addition to configuring the workplace for hybrid workers, you’ll need to provide ergonomic education and resources for workers who are using a home office or unassigned workstations. All these factors should be included in a remote work policy.

The remote work policy should also include guidelines for working on sensitive, protected, or classified information when working remotely, following all relevant legislative requirements.

Mapping out a safe return to work

Lead with empathy

When developing your return-to-work plan, thoroughness is key to ensuring workers’ physical and psychological safety.

Take the time to consider all the risks, adjust the workplace, and organize training on new procedures.

Communicate clearly and consistently, understanding that some employees are likely to need more time and support to transition back to the workplace.

Leaders have the opportunity to foster a psychologically safe and healthy workplace. Be vigilant in looking for signs of worker burnout and fatigue.

COVID-19 has changed the way we work and live. Workers require empathy and compassion as they return to the workplace.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS)  promotes the total well-being — physical, psychosocial, and mental health — of workers in Canada by providing information, advice, education, and management systems and solutions that support the prevention of injury and illness.

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