Ask the everywoman Experts: ‘I’m feeling anxious about my safety as I go back into an office for hybrid working’
Three experts give their advice to an everywomanNetwork member concerned about Covid safety as she transitions to hybrid working from homeworking…
An everywomanNetwork member writes...
I am due to start going back into the office two days a week in July, which will be the first time I have really spent any length of time indoors with anyone. I spent both lockdowns on my own at home and while I’m looking forward to seeing people and enjoying a bit more normality in my working days, I am also secretly worried about being around people again and how safe I will be. I’ve been vaccinated, but I am not sure what to expect and how to reduce my anxiety, stay healthy and protect myself properly in this situation.
EMPLOYER DUTY OF CARE
Risk assessments, safeguards/controls and phased returns will be at the heart of a safe return to the office says Ruth Wilkinson from the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH)
Your employer has a duty of care to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees and others who could be impacted through their work. As such, they will have done risk assessments to put Covid-secure measures in place; these could include supporting social distancing if that remains a requirement, cleaning regimes, screens, mask-wearing for those who are not exempt and monitoring. It’s likely there will be some kind of phasing back of people into the office too, rather than everyone returning together, which could also help allay your anxiety.
Part of that duty of care is around informing employees what these safeguards and protocols are — so if you are anxious then make sure you have that conversation with your employer. Remember that there is also a level of self-responsibility too about flagging concerns — in UK legislation employees also have responsibilities for health and safety, such as cooperating with their employer and that means following the control measures that are in in place, raising any concerns and looking after the health and safety of yourself and others. Everybody is responsible for health and safety; obviously with different levels of responsibilities and accountabilities through the legal framework. We all have a part to play, but we all need to understand what that part is — and that information comes from the employer.
And if something seems unsafe I’d advocate going through your manager first, to give your employer the opportunity to respond. You can raise things at consultative groups, employee forums and through health and safety representatives and peer support groups too, and if necessary you can then escalate it.
Your employer also needs to look at its processes and arrangements to support you around this shift in work and operational procedure. Have risk assessments covered work from home now it’s an extension of the workplace, to ensure health and safety, mental health and well-being? How are they ensuring proper communication with you?
If you are coming into the office two days a week, the big question for your employer, as for all businesses, is how managers will be equipped to support employees and operations in this hybrid model, and how they can keep and develop the business culture and engagement. This is a huge shift for individuals and businesses — but the key thing is that business-specific safeguards should be in place to protect you as you go back — while larger cultural changes, which don't happen overnight, will continue to evolve to support you and your colleagues in this new world of work.’
Ruth Wilkinson is Head of Health and Safety (Policy and Operations) at IOSH (www.iosh.com ) the Chartered body and leading membership organisation for safety and health professionals.
MINIMISE YOUR RISK
By looking at all the variables and minimising risk you can help protect yourself says Dr Charlotte Upham-Jones.
‘While concern is natural, a lot of the risk depends on what your colleagues are like. Have they been vaccinated? Are people taking things seriously and self-isolating if they get symptoms? How are you travelling in to work? You cannot affect all these variables, but what you do have control over will go a long way to protecting yourself and reducing the risk of transmission. We know more than we did a year ago about Covid transmission, which enables us to make decisions to be able to better protect ourselves. When I caught Covid a few months ago, I asked the occupational health doctor whether they thought I’d caught it in hospital or picked it up from touching something. They thought it was more likely to be through aerosol droplets, which are spread from person-to-person through respiration and talking — the World Health Organisation’s official position now is that the virus predominantly spreads through close, or direct, contact, and possibly contaminated surfaces. Washing your hands regularly is still very important, as is not touching your face and eyes, but the key thing is to give people space; if you’re nervous returning to work there’s no harm in asking people to keep a certain distance from you or your desk.
Research indicates that it’s pretty difficult to catch Covid from aerosol transmission when you’re outside— as long as you are a decent distance, 2m of more, from the person, so by that logic ventilation is a key factor to consider here. Sitting near an open window, for example, could help allay psychological fears about being in an enclosed space with other people, as well as providing physical protection. The guidance is still to wear a mask when you're in any public place including an office environment, but you don’t necessarily need a special mask like a N95 with a filter to protect yourself. The ones that we use in hospital are mostly disposable ones but having lots of washable ones that you use once — properly worn and covering the nose — then clean would be equally effective. It's reasonable to have healthy concern and awareness of this situation, after all we’ve spent more than a year being told to stay away from people, but employers will have put safeguards in place for this transition that you can then augment with your own personal risk assessments — and don’t be afraid to ask for adjustments and help if you are worried.’
Dr Charlotte Jones is a GP working in South Gloucestershire, UK, and also in the Royal United Hospital, Bath.
LOOK AFTER YOUR OWN HEALTH
Feeling more secure can start with supporting your own health says Registered Nutritional Therapist Susanna Walton.
‘A focus on supporting immunity through diet and lifestyle may help to manage any anxiety about moving to hybrid working. A strong immune system starts with eating a well-balanced wholefood diet, with regular meals, good hydration and a limit on refined sugars, alcohol and over-processed foods. Look to include a ‘rainbow’ of fruits and vegetables, a good source of protein, healthy fats and wholegrains with each meal. Fruit and vegetables provide the antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamins and minerals vital to supporting a healthy immune system. Including protein with carbohydrates when you snack will help keep blood sugar in control that can go awry with anxiety. Think about taking home-prepared food with you to the office, so you know you’re getting what you need without concerns.
A good night’s sleep is essential — ideally six to eight hours, — in a dark, cool room without interference of blue light from phones. Stress management is also vital. When we get stressed, immunity drops down the list of the body’s priorities. Breathing deeply and slowly will support your parasympathetic nervous system and assist in reducing your heart rate to ease any anxiety. If you do feel tense and your breathing gets shallow then ‘box breathing’ can help induce a sense of calm— imagine a box, breathe in for four seconds going ‘up’ one side of it in your mind, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds going down the other side of the box. If you're able to walk to work then do that; regular exercise will support your sense of wellbeing, plus being outside will also get you exposure to sunlight to keep your vitamin D levels topped up and help support immunity, even on a cloudy day — the D minder app is useful to tell you the optimum time of day to get vitamin D based on your geological position.
Good hydration is vital; about two litres of water a day is the general guidance for the average adult but adjust to your need particularly if exercising. I’d also recommend including fresh herbs in at least one meal a day to boost those antioxidants and provide natural anti-microbial protection. If you’re considering supplements to support immunity and you’re on medication then consult your GP first, but if there are no contraindications perhaps take some extra vitamin C, Zinc and Vitamin D. Most importantly though, don’t add to your stress by worrying about implementing a health regime as well; just do as much as you can to maintain your equilibrium physically and psychologically in what is a challenging transition for you.’
Susanna Walton is a Registered Nutritional Therapist working with private clients and businesses. www.susannawalton.com