Aside from promoting vaccinations, Canadian health agencies have stepped back from providing more stringent guidance on managing COVID-19 in the workplace. Formal restrictions on testing and isolation have been downgraded to suggestions, and the mountains of resources created during the peak are starting to collect dust.
But are we really out of the woods, or just in a state of limbo waiting for something more definitive either way? Over the last few months, infection rates surged predictably with Christmas travel and socializing, hospitals continued to report capacity concerns, while wastewater sampling from sites across Canada tracked decreasing viral loads. Employers began to steer their employees back to their offices with a mix of conditions and protections, and phased out apps and checkpoints requiring workers to confirm their health before entering workplaces.
So what’s next? In the absence of new or re-instituted rules from government, how should workplaces move forward?
Reinforcing personal heath measures for blocking routes of infection is still important, but COVID-19 has created a number of other issues that could become very significant in the workplace. Here are some from the top of the list.
- Long-COVID is a very real problem for many people, preventing them from returning to work or requiring they substantially change how they work. Health researchers and policy makers are just beginning to dig into this, but employers need to deal with it now. They need a framework that allows affected workers to define what a return to work looks like with maximum flexibility to accommodate regressions in recovery. And in those instances where accommodation is not feasible, employers need to seriously consider what supports they can offer departing workers.
- Mental health issues are probably as significant as the disease itself. From workers who have become so used to being isolated they no longer feel safe in the bigger world, to workers who simply don’t hear or heed the warnings because of information fatigue, employers need to proceed with caution, compassion and supports.
- Worker rights to refuse work they believe is unsafe will likely see an increase in reports identifying potential for infection from COVID-19 and other diseases. This requires employers to figure out how to deal with a potentially infectious worker, how that message is delivered, how the impacted worker is supported (e.g., sick pay), and how the worker who reported the refusal is protected.
- Sick workers should stay home. Regardless of workplace controls, workers are living private lives in environments where masking and social distancing are optional and increasingly rare. Combine that with the stark increase in seasonal flu infections essentially blocked for the last two years, and the risk of workers arriving to work with one bug or another is pretty high. Best scenario is sick workers stay home, but that means employers need to continue to offer the option to work from home, or ensure sick leave is available.
So while public health agencies have stepped back, employers need to step up and look very carefully at their policies and processes for responding to all the impacts of COVID-19. As a first step, each impact deserves a thorough risk assessment and follow-through on the findings. Sharing approaches through forums like LinkedIn will help to elevate overall response and enrich the workplace safety community.