10 tips for a safe return to work - from an International Labour Organization working mom

During lockdown, the entire ecosystem of International Geneva had to adjust to telework. Now you are slowly going back to normalcy, or are you? Perhaps it is time to assess if your boss managed the crisis well, and suggest a few ideas to ensure both your physical and mental health in the next phase. Manal Azzi, Senior Occupational Safety and Health Specialist at Geneva’s International Labour Organization (ILO), and a mother of three, provided us with a few tips on good practice - based on new ILO guidance - as well as explaining how she survived the quarantine experience herself.

Why it matters. Work-related environmental and social risks not only directly increase the potential for Covid-19 transmission but can also lead to anxiety, depression and stress, which also have physical impacts such as hypertension, vascular disease, and diabetes. Worse, they can lead to burn-out and even suicide. The ILO addresses key risks in newly-published Guidance for safe, healthy return to work during Covid-19. A complementary report addressing psycho-social work risks is to be issued next week. Here is a run-through preview and tips for managing them - peppered with the personal comments from Azzi who went through much of this herself as a working mom!

Ten issues you may have faced during lockdown or its exit, and tips for a “better normal”

  • Ventilation and physical working environment:  While your home environment was hopefully full of fresh air, offices are often notorious for being too hot, too cold and stuffy. Particularly in the wake of Covid-19 office crowding and insufficient ventilation/air exchanges can directly increase risks of Covid-19 infection transmission from one worker to another, and needs to be considered with your employer.

Tips: Ensure adequate physical spacing of work stations and “that your workplace is ventilated daily, preferably with natural ventilation by opening windows,” says the ILO guidance on a Safe Return to Work: Ten Action Points. “In case of mechanical ventilation, maintain recirculation with outdoor air.” Individual fans should be avoided, the guidance further adds, to reduce potential pathogen spread from one employee to another. See the brief for the full range of office engineering and administrative measures important to preventing workplace transmission of Covid-19.

  • Muscle & skeletal risks: Moving your office to an impromptu home set up on a desk or table may have exacerbated issues with potentially debilitating musculoskeletal injury such as bad back, sore neck and shoulders. Now is the time to ensure that your permanent work station doesn’t lead to chronic risks. Azzi:

“I clearly suffered from a lack of work-life balance, work overload and lack of the right equipment - these are all interconnected. I developed tendinitis due to the overload, and using a laptop for long hours. Had I been delivered a desktop with a mouse that may have prevented my injury.”

Tips: work on an ergonomic chair; put your screen sideways to a bright light source; view documents with a straight neck. Sit back in your chair; rest your feet flat; avoid prolonged standing in front of your computer and take breaks.

  • Health and social support in the office and beyond: when going back to an office, employees may have apprehensions about their infection risks, as well as about management’s policies on health insurance, surveillance, testing and contact tracing. Expats and UN staff, in particular, often far away from families and home communities, may have suffered more from the loss of casual social interactions between colleagues at work, or after work. Conversely, in other instances, older and more vulnerable family members visiting from abroad became trapped with their expat offspring during the lockdown - exacerbating fears of infection risks. Azzi:

“I decided to start teleworking only a day before it was mandatory. When the virus started hitting Switzerland hard, there was still some negative judgment towards those who opted to telework for fear for their health or those around them. In my case, my parents were visiting from Beirut.

“Covid-19 cases were beginning to be identified at the ILO and we still had a number of meetings planned and met so many people in the international world. We ended up with around 43 confirmed cases -not counting all the ones who had symptoms but were not tested- many of them probably contracted from colleagues.”

Tips: employers should be sure to organize a safe and healthy return to work, including offering flexibility in alternative office workdays/and continued teleworking, particularly for those who feel vulnerable. There should be updated information about health insurance, health surveillance, Covid-19 testing and tracing. This is also a time to reinforce or re-establish collegial social interactions, including for remote workers, e.g. virtual coffee breaks; and informal chat sessions about fears and apprehensions.

  • Work load, pace and schedule: dramatic increases in work load, change of schedules and work-life imbalance.

Tips: managers should assess work load, work distribution and priorities. A manager should design strategies to deal with difficult situations; improve work methods and technologies being used; acknowledge workers’ efforts to deal with increased work loads; recognize their meaningful contributions; and encourage staff to take breaks and maintain work-life balance.

  • Violence and harassment: increased psychological harassment from managers to workers or workers constantly bombarded with e-mails day and night and over the weekend on top of lockdown measures. Discrimination against people who were tested Covid-19 positive.

Tips: the list is broad but managers should use respectful and empowering language; establish procedures to prohibit discrimination; regularly consult with workers if violence and harassment occur; promote collegial support systems, and raise awareness about domestic violence.

  • Work-life balance: increased stress among workers taking care of either older relatives, children, or both, as well as single parents. Azzi:

“I have three young children of the age of 2, 4 and 6, two of them with home schooling requirements and one still in nappies. I live in a small apartment and had an incredible amount of work for my paid job, covering developments with the pandemic, responsible for producing a number of publications with sensitive timelines.

I was cooking, burning my hands, taking care of kids, doing a Skype call, muting. Often, I would arrange everything for a meeting I’d block the kids in one room, lock myself in another room, at times sitting on the bathroom floor. I start the call and then they postpone it to half an hour later. People who don’t have kids or partners don’t recognize the juggling you have to do to set a call up when you have three screaming kids in the background.”

Tips: ensuring flexibility in workers’ use of sick leave and parental leave; flexi hours and teleworking; financial support for childcare; greater focus on quality of work as compared to quantity. Azzi:

“I even had a ten days sick leave but I could not allow myself to take the time off. As an occupational health specialist, this was my first experience of a work injury. We know of a lot of positive tips and suggestions to cope with lockdown and they all seem fun, like follow a yoga class, ideas to entertain kids at home etc. but they are not really realistic. What would have helped me is if my office had offered to cover the cost of a nanny during this phase.”

  • Job security: even when people were able to work from home there was often a big question mark over whether they could keep their job at all. Self-employed people were also fragilized.

Tips: protect workers from unfair dismissal if they refuse to work in a dangerous situation; ensure awareness of labour law and rights; introduce temporary measures like reduced hours as an alternative to full-scale layoffs;

  • Leadership and communication: Managers who work non-stop may be more likely to inflict brutal schedules on their staff. Leadership involves good communication as well. Both the lack of information as well as information overload can lead to misconceptions.

Tips: managers should provide a good role model of professional commitment but also work-life balance; transparently share with staff return-to-work plans; ensure appropriate training or brush up on IT tools adopted in the wake of the crisis; check in about how staff are managing on the personal as well as professional level; continue to share the purpose and value of the worker and work they are doing; consult with workers; be open to innovations; and hopeful about the future.

  • Negative coping behaviours: inadequate sleep, over eating and junk food. Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.

Tips: educate on routines for healthy sleep and exercise; encourage healthy working hours and habits like taking breaks; educate on issues of drug and alcohol abuse; reduce stress and reassure workers about their job situation;

  • Psychological support: some people already had mental health issues which were exacerbated by increased stress and loneliness during the crisis.

Tips: create a “buddy” system to monitor stress and burnout and provide psychological support; pay attention to workers who have pre-existing mental health issues; provide self-calming techniques (relaxation tutorials, meditation classes); maintain confidentiality.