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As regions across the world begin to reopen for business, employers and managers are now tasked with considering and prioritizing health factors to determine if they’re even ready to welcome back employees.
According to CDC guidance, the first step is to develop a plan for those employees who may have higher medical risk factors or complications if they were to contract COVID-19. These employees might not be infectious, but they could be more susceptible to the novel coronavirus owing to pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes or a history of cancer.
“If you don’t have a plan to address that, then stop,” said Dr. Raj Behal, chief quality officer for One Medical Group, during a virtual Q&A on Wednesday hosted by Fortune. Behal has been practicing internal medicine for more than 20 years and is trained in public health. As chief quality officer over the past three years at One Medical, his role includes overseeing the quality and value of care delivered to patients.
“If you look at why rates are declining, the biggest driver of why we’re seeing fewer deaths and fewer cases is shelter in place. We haven’t been connecting with fellow human beings for a few months now,” Behal said. “As we start to come back and start to cluster without masks and protections, the virus does what the virus does. It’s not smart, but it’s social. It thrives on human contact.”
So this is the part, Behal underscored, that is sometimes hard for public health agencies to get across: The need for masks is greatest right now when the case numbers are lower. “This is how we mitigate the spread. If we don’t take these precautions, we’ll see a second spike,” he said.
While it’s not conclusive about COVID-19, coronaviruses tend to weaken during summer months. But approaching winter, if we start to slow down with precautions, Behal warned, we’ll see another spike. The flu season also starts to gear up in October, peaking in December and January. So if we mitigate risks for COVID, we may also mitigate for the flu. The question then is: How do we instill these habits in the general population?
When it comes to setting requirements and protocols for employees, employers have a lot more control. But it’s more complicated when customers or clients want to walk in. It’s difficult to reassure them that an indoor location—whether it be an office space, a retail store, or a restaurant—feels safe.
If a client walking in sees some visible mitigation efforts indicating the manager is taking precautions seriously—whether it be the requirements of face masks or markings on the floor to enforce social distancing—he or she might feel more at ease to conduct transactions.
And while it is not possible for all jobs, allowing employees the option to work from home is a sensible long-term strategy to keeping the business moving while also indicating you are being considerate and mindful of their needs. If employees do come into their place of work, they should be symptom-free, and if testing is readily available in your region (which it is much more now than a few months ago), then employees could and should be tested before coming in. If employees have any symptoms at all, they should stay home.
Then there’s the added anxiety of coming back to the workplace, including the concern about the chances about getting infected upon return. To ease employee fears, employers should communicate sanitizing protocols and changes being made before anyone goes back. Behal reiterated that the virus doesn’t live forever, and after a few hours, it dissipates in strength. That said, a new cleaning protocol shouldn’t just be spraying a surface with a disinfectant. (You have to clean the surface first, and then disinfect.)
“What the virus needs to transmit is human interaction and close interaction,” Behal said. So the higher the density, the higher the risk of transmission. There are a lot of ways to mitigate that, from social distancing to face masks to sanitizing.
Having some constraints in office buildings can be useful. Behal said he has seen some reopening plans that involve hiring elevator stewards, who will only let, for example, four people in at a time. Say a fifth person tries to squeeze in, the steward will be tasked with managing the situation so safety limits are kept.
“I’ve seen pictures of elevators with four spots painted or stickers in each corner, and they direct you to stand with your face to the wall in the elevator. So it’s like a time out for kids,” Behal said. “There are things like that that employers are trying with good intentions.”
Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy, and some businesses have different needs. Restaurants require more consideration as people will have to take their masks off to eat and drink. With that in mind, tables will need to be kept farther apart, and servers should be wearing masks. There could also be customer experiences in which customers either forget to or choose not to bring a mask, so it would be wise for businesses to keep masks on hand for one-time use.
“We know the risk of transmission outdoors, at least theoretically, is lower,” Behal noted. “So if you have outdoor seating, make sure there is distancing.”
The silent pandemic
Not all health problems have obvious symptoms, and employers will need to be mindful of what employees have had to endure over the past several weeks and months.
“There’s a silent pandemic going on that we’re not talking about enough, and that’s the pandemic of mental health. People are really stressed,” Behal said.
At first, Behal noted that for many, it was novel to work from home. But after time, that practice gets on people’s nerves. He predicted there will be a rise in PTSD as the pandemic continues amid reopening, and that combined with the economic crisis as well as social unrest across the nation, all of that is just going to add to the mental health burden.
“The most important thing employers can do is recognize that,” Behal said, cautioning against any kind of “macho” or “tough” responses in which employees are encouraged to say they can handle it. “Let’s talk to people and make sure they understand there is support for that.”
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