How can workplaces best protect workers as uncertain times continue
Canada is bracing for a potential sixth wave of COVID. According to recent epidemiological models from the Canadian government, there has been an 18.3 per cent increase of COVID-19 cases over the last seven days. With certain measures having been relaxed, questions abound as to how workplaces can best protect their workers in these uncertain times.
“There are waves that will come and go, and it’s really important that we watch globally what happens with other continents, just to see how we can follow suit and what is working and what isn’t,” says Hope Kirk, Head of Consultancy, Peninsula Canada.
Employers need to have a firm grasp on how to handle workers potentially affected by the virus. “The most important thing is to look at your policies and procedures in place,” says Kirk. This includes ensuring that attendance policies, remote working policies and others are up to scratch.
If a worker is feeling unwell, having those clear policies in place that are up-to-date to reflect the current COVID surge will go a long way in keeping up productivity while ensuring that no one who is infected is coming into the office, says Kirk.
“Another thing that we want to consider is making sure that we remind individuals about the option to get vaccinated,” she says. But employers will want to make sure to tread lightly on the human rights front – if a vaccine is mandated within a workplace, employers have to make sure that it is compliant with current human rights legislation. There is a duty to accommodate if an individual is medically or religiously not able to get a vaccine.
Right now, a huge area of interest for employers and the general population is booster shots. These are being recommended by a number of local public health bodies. Kirk says that she would always recommend following what medical professionals are saying and keeping up to date with public health guidance. “If they say take a booster shot, then yes let’s take a booster shot and let’s put accommodations in place to get it.” For companies that are able to, organizing a booster shot clinic is also a good idea.
Vaccines are one control measure, but there are also other control measures that you can put into place as a company, says Kirk. “When an occupational health and safety professional is looking at this, they’ll look at the hierarchy of controls. And the best way to reduce the hazard, which is COVID, is to mitigate the risk of someone getting ill.” Vaccines are a great way to eliminate or reduce transmission, but they cannot be the sole control measure.
Companies have to also rely on preventative measures such as physical barriers like plexiglass barriers used in the restaurant or retail industry. While many organizations have dropped such measures, a potential sixth wave may be a good time to reintroduce them. Reintroducing masks and other protective equipment such as gloves can also help mitigate the spread of the virus.
“You also want to consider changing the way [employees] work,” says Kirk. “Doing a self-screening, using hand sanitizer, using a mask, staying six inches apart – those are all safe work procedures that organizations can put into place to make sure they mitigate the risk of this sixth wave that unfortunately may be approaching.”
Aside from these protective measures, now is also a good time to check in on employee mental health. Many workers may be suffering from pandemic fatigue or other serious issues. “It’s been over two years, people are exhausted,” says Kirk. There has been a high influx of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
“The best thing that a company can do is have regular check-ins with your staff to notice any behavioural changes. Is your star performer suddenly having a decline on responding to you on time, and delivering projects as they should? That’s an indicator.” Other things such as irritability or a slip in personal hygiene can also be indicators. “It’s all about spending enough time with your employees, either checking in with them virtually or spending time in person, to do that quick pulse check, to understand them well enough to say that this is not normal behaviour.”
If this is the case, employers need to provide an adequate support system and have one readily available such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which workers can use when needed. Sharing links and resources with workers is also a good idea. Being open about mental health in the workplace can help destigmatize it, “we’re all a little bit nervous to bring it up, but it’s ok to talk about it. And a lot of people may be going through it more than we realize.”