• Editor

Employees returning to work? Here’s how to protect them – and help prevent a second wave

In May this year, as the number of people being infected by the novel coronavirus rose rapidly, and businesses, government and society scrambled to mitigate its effects, Old Mutual decided to act. 

‘We knew we wanted to do something for our clients and specifically for their employees, given the large number who are insured with us,’ says Urvashi Ramjee, Head of Claims Management at Old Mutual. 

Building on a previous relationship with CareWorks – a specialist disease management, counselling and support provider – Old Mutual Corporate created a partnership with the company to help businesses during the pandemic and assist workers. 

‘Initially, we thought it would be mostly around advice and education,’ says Dr Nkateko Msimeki, Medical Adviser at CareWorks. ‘But as the pandemic spread, we found people started calling in with symptoms.’ 

77% of the people screened had symptoms suggestive of Covid-19 or had been in contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19. As a result, Msimeki estimates that from March to August the call centre reduced onward transmission by between 21% and 41%. 

Mitigating the risk of workplace infections

In the process, the centre gathered a wealth of data on Covid-19 in the workplace, which led to valuable learnings. 

According to the call centre’s findings, for example, close contact between fellow employees often took place while driving together to and from work, during lunchtime at work or in restrooms. 

Dr Msimeki says that through these findings, they were firstly able to implement strategic measures at the CareWorks office and Old Mutual Call Centre to mitigate their own risk of infection, and could also engage further with affected workplaces, leading to more insights and practical knowledge.

‘If there’s a second wave, I think a lot more will be expected from companies. We won’t have an excuse the second time around.  – Urvashi Ramjee, Old Mutual Head of Claims Management 

In anticipation of a potential second wave, Dr Msimeki cautions employers not to relax just yet. ‘It is crucial to ensure that employers make their workplace as safe as possible. They should arm themselves not only with basic tools such as hand sanitisers, mandatory mask wearing, social distancing, and regular temperature readings, but also with the right information and updated risk-mitigation strategies to help reduce the threat of transmission should an employee test positive.’ 

As many South Africans return to work in the coming weeks, Ramjee and Msimeki have these tips to share with business owners, HR consultants and workers.

Split the risk

Wherever possible, keep different groups of employees apart. Put people in shifts, provide them with different access requirements and entry points, or allow access only to certain floors.

Curb kitchen time

‘The risk of infection isn’t necessarily at their desks, but what people do at their lunch break,’ explains Msimeki. For this reason, she recommends rotating access to kitchen and bathroom facilities.

Contact with surfaces may be a risk factor but, according to Msimeki, the real risk is actually the contact between people when in the space. So, numbers do matter.

Supply the right PPE

Supplying job-appropriate personal protective equipment is critical as more employees return to work. It’s also important to educate your workforce on how – and why – they should use the specific gear you’re supplying, says Msimeki. ‘Often organisations put the equipment and the policy in place, but the workforce doesn’t understand why and therefore doesn’t necessarily use it.’

Think about mental health

Eight months after the pandemic hit South Africa, Msimeki has seen many patients dealing with ‘post-Covid’ issues after being ill – insomnia, stress, even post-traumatic-stress disorder, while Ramjee adds that the call centre noticed increased calls from employers on how to deal with employee stress and anxiety as the pandemic wore on.

When the country started seeing an increase in deaths, employers also started searching for guidance on how to help staff deal with loss and grief.

The team therefore advises that businesses should come up with a policy not only to deal with Covid infections, but also its effect on employees in the long-term, as well as how to deal with people who have been in isolation, have been working from home for extended periods of time, or are returning from quarantine.

Create visual reminders

Covid fatigue is a real thing, but the reality is it’s not over yet, emphasises Msimeki. ‘We need ways to keep engaging the workforce with reminders and educational news.’

Keep cleaning