As governments urge employers to get their people back into the workplace to maximise office space and boost “post-pandemic” service/retail economies, the focus should not just be on “getting bums on seats”, says one leading voice from occupational health.

Dr Karen Michell, research programme lead for occupational health at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), has called for managers to meet the challenges of a new world of work with flexibility and creativity.

“Their focus should not just be on being at work, or ‘bums on seats’, but rather driven by performance and outputs,” she argues.

Blogging on the IOSH website, Michell writes: “The current call from governments is to get people back to work safely and to maximise the use of office space.

“For many workers this may mean a return to previously overcrowded and poorly ventilated workspaces – key factors in the transmission of communicable diseases. But organisations can instil worker confidence by reviewing their occupancy and ventilation status and by making necessary adjustments to ensure better quality workspaces,” she adds.

“Flexible and hybrid work arrangements will contribute to reducing occupancy, which will aid social distancing and may help improve ventilation.”

However, seeing that working from home is not an option for many, and workers in the gig economy must return to the workplace or face loss of earnings, Michell calls on employers to support these workers to stay at home if they are unwell.

“Employers might find it necessary to adjust their sickness and absence policies because as long as vulnerable workers are required to stay at home and lose wages they will continue to go into work and risk infecting their colleagues and customers,” she states.

There are measures other than working from home that can also be used to prevent the spread of diseases in the workplace, claims Michell, suggesting that we should continue to remember the lessons we have learnt from Covid-19. These include: promoting vaccination; improving ventilation and control occupancy to reduce transmission risk; maintaining good workplace hygiene; continuing to promote lateral flow testing based on symptomatology; establishing an organisational culture that reflects an environment where workers feel empowered to take responsibility for their well-being; and reviewing policies to continue to address issues related to Covid-19 and other communicable diseases.

The continued implementation of these controls, she suggests, will help to protect workers, especially during seasonal outbreaks, reducing their risk of exposure to not only Covid-19 but any other future communicable diseases that may be coming our way.

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