Early on in the summer, no one would fault you for exuberantly plotting your back-to-the-office plan. Hospitalizations for Covid-19 were waning and it suddenly seemed like life was once again approaching normal. However, with the more contagious Delta variant now spreading across the U.S., you'll want to assess the potential health risks of opening up the office.
Here are a few questions you should ask yourself before bring employees back:
How safe is your physical workspace?
Your office or physical space may have been suitable for work prior to the pandemic, but that doesn't mean it will be moving forward. One major example is air quality.
Business owners need to focus on having enhanced ventilation and filtration, says Dr. Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program and an associate professor at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Breathing and talking constantly admit respiratory aerosols that can build up indoors unless diluted out of the air or cleaned out of the air through filtration. And most buildings are designed to a minimum standard that was never intended to be protection against infectious diseases.
Before fixing anything, though, you have to know what your system is doing. Dr. Allen recommends every company "commission" their building, a process by which the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems of a building are tested for performance and functionality. "It's the equivalent of giving your car a tune-up every year, and it's not done enough," Dr. Allen says.
There are also many ways to measure and verify the performance of your building, he adds. You can hire a mechanical engineer to determine how much air flow you're getting. Low-cost real-time sensors can be used to verify ventilation rates. In a typical building, carbon dioxide concentrations are going to be about 1,000 parts per million, and ideally to slow the rate of infection levels, they should be under 800 parts per million. And fixes don't have to be laborious or expensive. Bringing a bit more outdoor air in can be as easy as opening windows or spending a couple of dollars to upgrade to quality air filters such as MERV 13 filters. Portable air filters are a bit more expensive at roughly $100 a piece, but they can greatly improve air quality.
How many employees are vaccinated?
You can absolutely ask employees whether they're vaccinated, and if you're bringing people back, or considering doing so, it's not a bad idea. Northwell Health has done numerous surveys to assess their 15,000-person workforce to determine who is vaccinated and the reasons why those who have not gotten the vaccine are hesitant.
"When we started evaluating metrics around why people weren't getting vaccinated, we got better insight into how to communicate with them and manage our concern," says Joseph Moscola, executive vice president of enterprise services at Northwell Health.
One survey revealed that 7 percent of Northwell's workforce didn't get vaccinated because they were scared of needles. So the company crafted safe environments with music and comfortable chairs to help make the experience more inviting for those employees. Moscola says Northwell is aiming for a vaccination rate of 90 percent or higher before it considers its space safe. Currently 77 percent of Northwell's 75,000 employees are fully vaccinated.
Also remind people of the risks of not getting a jab. While a vaccinated individual may still get Covid, they're significantly less likely to have severe symptoms or be at risk of hospitalization than unvaccinated folks. That's why it's crucial to continue to encourage workers with any symptoms to stay home and get tested, as well as follow CDC and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) directives in the workplace. It's also crucial to educate employees and your community on the advantages of vaccination.
Are employees are taking care of themselves?
One way to stay abreast of the physical health of employees is to check in and see if they're taking care of themselves. This can be done through surveys, asking people if they describe themselves as healthy and well and also how often they take advantage of any medical benefits. Self-insured employers also have access to claims data through their third-party administrator that can share general information like what percentage of employees had a primary care visit in the past 12 months, or what percentage of people have been seriously hospitalized, says Dr. Shantanu Nundy, chief medical officer at Accolade, a benefit provider for health care workers.
Consider also assessing how employees are doing mentally, he adds. You can ask employees to take surveys such as the Maslach Burnout Inventory, a psychological assessment comprising 22 symptom items pertaining to occupational burnout; the PHQ-9, a nine-question questionnaire measuring depression; and the GAD seven, a seven-item questionnaire measuring anxiety. Employees may not feel comfortable sharing this information, so it's best to make it optional and tell employees that results are kept confidential.
"While a lot of people are dealing with clinical depression or clinical anxiety, many are dealing with a new kind of emotional stress due to the pandemic, which can include not feeling safe or heard or included in the workplace," says Dr. Nundy. "These surveys can offer a comprehensive clinical health and environmental view of how your workforce is doing."