As more people head back to work, organizations across the globe have made many drastic changes with the intent of preserving occupation health – including setting up hand-sanitizing stations, the adoption of staggered working hours, and the continued recommendation of remote working. However, as stated in a report published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation (JOR) by W. Shaw and colleagues, “physical distancing, stay-at-home orders, and isolation have produced drastic social, economic and health consequences for workers of all ages, with a disproportionate impact on those more disadvantaged.” What are the major challenges faced by those returning to work, and how can organizations work to overcome them?
Greater Stress For Workers
Workers returning to their offices or workplaces for the first time will be facing significantly more stress and anxiety than in the past, especially if they are located in high-risk zones or their work makes them vulnerable to infection (as is the case with fruit pickers, meat packers, and health workers). Sources of stress include fear of job loss, lack of social interaction with other workers, and difficulties in traveling to work. The JOR report states that for many, the fear of infection from the virus will itself be the greatest source of stress. Companies have taken steps to ensure spaces are professionally cleaned against COVID-19, yet workers may fear contagion through poor venting systems or the simple need to work closely alongside others. Cleanliness is the first step, but it is only one of many that companies need to take.
Societal Sources Of Stress
The authors point out that an additional source of anguish can lie in the societal impact of the pandemic, both in and out of work. Within the workspace itself, vital changes may need to be made to workplace interactions and procedures, especially for staff with the highest risks. Research shows that the risks posed by returning to work are highest among those who have a socioeconomic disadvantage. The researchers stated that “Low-income workers will be more likely to have jobs deemed as essential with no options for working from home, and workplace exposures may be more difficult to control.” Disadvantages can also be age, race and education-related.
Key Steps for Organizations
In order to ensure a smooth transition back to the office, say Shaw et. al., employers need to set up plans that are catered to individual worker circumstances. Blanket plans may be unrealistic or may affect some workers too harshly. The organization should also set up different health and safety guidelines that are industry or role-specific, considering the unique factors that make up each workplace. Finally, organizations should take special care of the needs of disadvantaged workers, who are more likely to be exposed to risk and who are also more likely to have inflexible job tasks. These workers are also at a greater risk of job loss.
The return to the era of new normality is posing challenges for organizations wishing to lower both infection rates and work stress. Those wishing to make a positive difference should take time to set up different procedures for each set of workers or even for individual employees depending on their needs. Special care needs to be taken of those who are most at risk, both for contagion and loss of employment.