By Priya Vijay | 21 Apr 2021

How has COVID-19 changed our ability to stay healthy in the workplace?

This year’s World Day for Health & Safety at Work puts COVID-19 and employee wellbeing firmly in the spotlight.


COVID-19 has changed much about the world in which we live. For many of us, the most profound impact has been on how we work. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are fortunate enough to have jobs they can do from home, with little or no disruption to their usual work routine. However, many aren't so blessed.

World Day for Health & Safety at Work and COVID-19

United Nations agency the International Labour Organization (ILO) is responsible for organising the annual World Day for Health & Safety at Work, which occurs on April 28th.

In alignment with the great deal of work and resources the ILO has already dedicated to COVID-19, this year's event focuses on how workplaces can respond to crises. Specifically, the event promotes the importance of occupational safety and health and what businesses can do to keep their employees safe in the workplace.

The underlying message across the whole of this year’s campaign is that COVID-19 is here to stay, so there’s a duty on employers to look after their teams. The ILO goes even further than this and is using this year’s World Day for Health & Safety at Work to call on governments to improve labour standards to ensure everyone can go to work without risking their health.

Our article from last year looking at preparing to go back to work after lockdown included a look at some of the things employers were likely to be doing to keep people safe, whatever their working environment.

COVID-19 in the workplace statistics

Some of the most sobering data relating to COVID-19 is that around infections occurring in the workplace.

  • The ILO, in conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO), estimates that between 20% - 30% of COVID-19 infections in some countries can be attributed to workplace exposure.
  • Scientists estimate workers in closed air environments are nearly 19 times more likely to transmit and acquire COVID-19 versus those working in open-air environments.

Even more startling is data relating to those who work in the healthcare sector, a theme that the WHO also addressed as part of 2020’s World Patient Safety Day:

Working safely with COVID-19

Asking how COVID-19 has changed our ability to work safely is almost the wrong question, or at least it's a question that requires a two-part answer.

Just over a year ago, COVID-19 made staying healthy at work into something of a free for all. Now, workplaces have been able to put numerous measures in place to help keep their teams safe.

Of course, we should also acknowledge that healthcare workers still face an elevated level of risk, even where there aren’t issues around things like the availability of personal protective equipment.

What has happened to ensure we can go to work safely while acknowledging that COVID-19 is now likely to be an ever-present part of our lives?

Changes made to our workspaces to mitigate the spread of COVID-19

People who have returned to the office after a period of working from home may have noticed some or all of the following changes:

  • Facilitation of better ventilation systems, either through new installations or upgrades.
  • The use of physical barriers, such as the use of screens between workspaces.
  • Reconfiguration of office space to ensure maximum attendance while still facilitating social distancing.
  • Changes related to human traffic, such as one-way systems in the office, the closing of lifts, and separate stairwells for going up or downstairs.

Organisational measures many workplaces have taken

In addition to the above structural changes, many of us will also be familiar with the following:

  • Working from home.
  • Attending the office at staggered hours or on different days from colleagues, to limit the number of people there at once.
  • Being involved in risk assessments to help us be proactive with managing risk at work.
  • Undertaking client meetings virtually rather than meeting in coffee shops or each other’s offices.

What else can reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in workplaces?

On top of these changes, workplaces are also promoting the things the WHO has been telling us to do since the start of the pandemic, such as regularly washing our hands and keeping surfaces clean.

Many employers also provide COVID-19 testing for employees and additional support for those who test positive and are required to quarantine.

What else can employers do to protect their teams’ wellbeing?

Employers need to recognise that protecting their teams from COVID-19 is just one part of the bigger picture.

For example, despite all our best efforts to stay safe, the so-called “new normal” still represents a significant change for us all. As such, employers should also invest more time and resources in looking after their teams’ overall wellbeing.

Just over a year ago, we launched our Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) to our SME clients who were looking to do just that!

We’ve also recently introduced a Member Assistance Programme, to enable our members who don’t have access to an EAP with their employer to do more to take care of their overall wellbeing.

Staying safe from COVID-19, at work and elsewhere

While increasing numbers of citizens can receive a COVID-19 vaccine, we mustn't allow the idea that we're protected to foster complacency. Mitigating the impact of COVID-19 at work and elsewhere involves far more than solely the virus itself.

Whether you’re an employer or employee, ensure you’re doing everything you can to protect both your own and your colleagues’ wellbeing.

You can learn more about this year’s World Day for Health & Safety at work here.

By Priya Vijay

Priya since her joining has been driving the people and culture agenda to make NHI a great place to work by creating a high performing organization by investing in talent to meet the ever changing demands of the business.

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