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3 strategies for safely returning employees to work

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Many states are beginning to re-open their economies, which means companies are preparing to carefully return some employees to the workplace, while continuing to focus on the safety of those essential employees who have been there all along.

It’s important to say: There’s no one solution that will be successful for every company. Instead, it’s crucial to focus on a global, 360-degree approach. With that in mind, companies should adopt strategies from across three different categories — screening and testing; workplace policies and design; and health and healthcare access.

Screening and testing
At a high level, it’s critical to make sure employees are confident it’s safe and secure to go back to work. Screenings, which can be done by questionnaire or temperature checks, play an important role in creating that confidence by reducing the likelihood that employees who come back to work have an active infection. As a safeguard, all individuals entering the workplace can respond to a screening questionnaire and have their temperature monitored. These screenings should be done daily, by shift, and throughout the day based on job duties and entry and departure policies for each specific employer. To maintain simplicity, efficiently screen everyone, streamline entry points, and utilize signage to direct traffic flow.

While screenings won’t catch every infection, as some people with COVID-19 remain asymptomatic, they are a worthwhile tool — especially when combined with other strategies. For a large employer with thousands of workers in one place, screenings can help identify individuals who may be at higher risk of spreading COVID-19, which makes them a critical part of mitigating its spread.

Now let’s talk about testing, specifically antibody testing, which measures the presence of an immune response to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Like screening, antibody testing has an important role to play in re-opening workplaces by helping employers better understand their populations’ prior exposure to the virus and the presence of an immune response. It’s relatively safe to administer and requires less extensive personal protective equipment (PPE), which makes it realistic for employers to offer it broadly to their workforces.

There has been a lot of discussion around the value antibody testing can provide, as the level and duration of protective immunity remain unknown. Regularly offering antibody testing (known as serial testing) provides value to employers. It gives them a way to track the prevalence of COVID-19 within their populations, which can inform their overarching strategies and help them plan for the future.

Keep in mind: screening and testing are tools for reducing transmission. They cannot fully stop the spread of COVID-19 or help people get better once they have it, but they do allow us to identify people who might be infected or at higher risk for future infection. When paired with other strategies, the combination of screening and antibody testing helps enhance workforce safety and demonstrates to employees that their employers are committed to their wellbeing.

Policies and design
As Americans go back to work, it becomes more difficult to employ social and physical distancing. Therefore, we need to help people maintain physical distancing through smart policies and workplace design. For example, one measure employers can consider is phasing in employees. This tactic will look different based on the employer, but could include alternating days, staggering shifts, or extending the traditional workday. Employers can also identify a limited number of necessary employees to return and strategically place them throughout the building to allow for physical distancing. But that alone won’t be enough. The number of meetings that take place in person should be reduced and replaced with virtual meetings, even once back in the office. Chairs can also be spread apart in common areas, such as cafeterias and breakrooms.

Healthy workplaces also encourage the use of cloth face coverings. Providing employees with cloth face coverings helps prevent individuals who might be unaware they are sick from spreading the illness. Simply put, when people are wearing a mask, they don’t touch their faces or bring foreign substances into their mouth and nose nearly as often. Masks are a visible and tangible sign of what an employer is doing to help keep their workers safe, once again reinforcing that it is possible to return to work and stay safe.

Healthcare access
This pandemic has created a new world, where many people — especially those with chronic conditions — no longer feel comfortable venturing far from home. In this new normal, healthcare access is more important than ever; diseases like diabetes and hypertension haven’t gone away in deference to coronavirus. To ensure access to care in a time when a typical doctor’s visit isn’t possible, providing virtual care is extremely important. When employees have access to services like primary care, wellness coaching, and behavioral health, they can receive necessary care from home and reduce the burden on our bricks and mortar health system while staying healthier and more productive.

Aside from emphasizing the importance of healthcare, it’s also a good idea to focus on overall health in the workplace. Continue communicating to your employees that they should stay home if they feel sick and check in virtually with their primary care provider. To battle those uncertainties, ensure your employees are able to maintain good hygiene by creating a work environment that promotes personal hygiene. I like the idea of placing hand sanitizer strategically and abundantly throughout a workplace. Not only do people use it, but it also serves as a reminder to wash hands frequently. Cleaning surfaces including doorknobs, faucets, and sink handles frequently also helps reduce spread.

As we head into the summer, it’s America’s companies who will be leading the reopening of our country. Please remember, just implementing one of these strategies won’t be enough. But when taken together and executed appropriately with high-quality partners, they work.

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