Covid Restrictions Ending: What Next For Workplaces?

—By Mark Philpott, CEO at NPH Group

As we emerge from the winter months, the UK Government has announced the end of all restrictions enforced due to Covid-19. From a public health education and analytics point of view, this marks the start of what the Government hopes will be the end of the pandemic in the weeks and months to come but there is uncertainty.

The emphasis is now placed on individuals and businesses to reduce the cost to the taxpayer for testing and to encourage a ‘common sense’ approach to managing infection at home and in the workplace.

The easing of controls alongside learning to live with Covid-19 is now a personal and business challenge. With self-isolation periods ending, we are likely to see presenteeism (people attending work with confirmed illness) rise with infections in the workplace increasing.

The question is what impact will this have on the workplace and how will employers control infection, production and manage their responsibilities to vulnerable workers?

Occupational Health advice and guidance has been in more demand, with demand for Health Surveillance, including Covid-19 screening and Absence Management being central to business policy supporting productivity.

Testing has been one tool in the armoury in the battle against Covid-19, but it was never going to be the only solution to curbing the prevalence of the disease in society, at home and at work. This would fall to a large extent to vaccinations, which has proved hugely effective against the current variants.

However, even vaccinations are not the panacea of all Covid-19 disease and new variants remain a real and current threat. Until we have a vaccine that will protect against all current and future forms of Covid-19, there will always be a real and present danger in society and in the workplace for more vulnerable people from existing and new variants. What matters now is how businesses and individuals manage the risk effectively.

What Does This Mean for Businesses?

A lot of commentary out there is to treat Covid-19 like we treat the common cold. Adopting general health, wellbeing and sickness policies which mitigate the risk of transmission in the workplace and reducing the likelihood of a critical mass of employees being off work at any one time. The impact of which can be felt on productivity, output and the success or failure of a business.

Can’t We Just Treat Covid-19 Like the Common Cold?

The common cold is part of the Covid family of disease but what is different is the novel nature of the disease, the propensity to develop into new variants, the unpredictability of these variants on personal health and the random but significantly higher risk of mortality. The truth is that we do not know how the pandemic will unfold and there is no guarantee that any future variants will not be more virulent so we must have the means to screen and monitor in situations deemed to be higher risk or that will have the greatest impact on business.

It will take time, potentially years, for the pandemic to become no more of a threat to society and business than the common cold.

For Covid-19 to become a new and manageable norm, with minimal negative health impacts, the global population will have to be protected by various means, which means vaccinating everyone and maintaining methods and policy to limit the impact of Covid infection in the workplace, using locally adopted testing, monitoring, isolation and return to work guidance. This isn’t an easy feat.

Occupational Health Advisors cannot dictate what a business should do but the profession can work with businesses to understand their risks and help to adopt surveillance, monitoring, and make recommendations on individual adjustments for those returning to the workplace following acute infection and or any impact of long Covid-19.

A large part of making your staff feel at ease returning to the workplace will be a robust testing strategy – especially if they or their loved ones are vulnerable. Within NPH Group we have developed integrated technology to accurately monitor and manage the results and isolation periods which is already proven effective within our workplace and our customers such as Virgin Voyages are also wanting to use it.

So, what do we need to do differently to make our workplace safe and secure for the future? Not all measures need to cost or be a significant investment, in fact, most can increase productivity and the psychological safety of employees in the workplace delivering a return on investment. If people feel looked after, they will engage in the aims of the business.

Increasingly, people are willing to participate and have discussions about their personal health and well-being. More people now talk about mental health in the workplace; ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ and people recognise that those closest to them at work can often have the biggest influence on personal choices, change, emotions, and feelings.

So, promoting a culture of health promotion and inclusion brings genuine issues to the forefront, which can be understood and embraced. In this sense, Covid-19 could be a springboard to future business success.

Alongside, the many others measure that can be adopted in the workplace to prevent the spread of infection and hospitalisation of the vulnerable, testing, managing and monitoring the prevalence of disease must be a good place to start and can become the cornerstone of data that can inform discussions on health, wellbeing, and sickness policy at work.