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What you Need to Know About Health in the Workplace During COVID-19

Now that lockdown has eased up, more and more South Africans are going back to work. But how safe is it to go back during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still spreading across the country? In level 3 of lockdown, the government has deemed it safe to enter the workplace again, but the following 10 important protocols should be adhered to for your safety as well as the safety of your colleagues:

1. Wear a mask

By law, we must wear masks when we leave our homes. This is imperative when we enter the workplace where we want to prevent the spread of the virus to our colleagues and, in turn, their families. The reason why we all wear masks is because many of us can be COVID-19 positive but show very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Masks prevent the droplets from spreading rapidly through the air when we cough, sneeze and even talk. We must all assume we have the virus in order to save the lives of those who may contract a severe case of COVID-19 and are then at a high risk of dying from it. We also need to keep in mind that if the virus is spread at work, the company may need to close for a period of time which will affect everyone.

2. Wash hands

By law we must wash our hands and sanitise frequently while at work. This would include:

  • As you enter the workplace
  • Every time you prepare tea, coffee or food
  • After going to the toilet
  • When you leave the workplace
  • When you arrive home

Do carry a hand sanitiser with you at all times just in case you need it when you are at work or out and about during your lunch break, although your workplace and the retail outlets you visit should by law have sanitisers at the entrance points and in high-touch areas.

3. Sanitise high-touch zones

While it is the responsibility of the employer to sanitise all work stations, it is still a good idea for you to be overly cautious and wipe down your phone, computer keyboard, drawer/cupboard handles, desktop and the arms of your office chair when you arrive at work in the morning. Unless you are certain your employer is sanitising your workplace thoroughly every evening after the staff have left. Even then, you should always wipe down your phone with sanitiser.

4. Keep your distance

By law, every workplace must create a 1.5 metre distance between each workstation/work desk. If this cannot physically happen, then there needs to be barriers between each desk. If these precautions have not been put in place when you arrive back at the office, you have every right to ask your employer to put them in place. Remember to practice social distancing with your colleagues even though you will all be wearing masks. Do not shake hands or hug anyone at work no matter how much you would like to.

5. Use your own crockery and cutlery

If you feel unsafe using the crockery and cutlery – including mugs and teaspoons – from the office’s communal kitchen, then do bring your own set to work. However, there is very little risk of you contracting the virus from the communally used crockery and cutlery because it gets washed regularly throughout the day.

6. Use disposable paper towels or your own cloth hand towel

The healthiest, most risk-free way for you to dry your hands after washing them in a public restroom is by using disposable paper towels. If your employer does not supply these in the restrooms, then perhaps you could suggest that now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, would be a good time to do so. Or, if you are uncomfortable making this recommendation to your employer, then bring your own disposable paper hand towels to work or a clean cloth one from home every day.

7. Stay home when sick

Gone are the days of dragging yourself off to work when you were sick because you were concerned about what your employer might think of you if you stayed at home. Now, if you develop any of the COVID-19 symptoms – sore throat, fever, sudden cough, shortness of breath or other flu-like symptoms – you must take sick leave and stay home until you are fully recovered. If your symptoms get worse and you suspect you may have COVID-19, you should get in touch with your doctor and discuss the next steps.

8. Be honest about how you feel

This definitely goes without saying when it comes to your physical health. For example, if you develop a sore throat at work, immediately let your employer know and go straight home, then follow our advice in point 7. However, there is another feeling that you should be honest about in the workplace and that is your mental health. We are currently all facing the Great Unknown so it is perfectly normal to feel anxious, scared, frustrated, uncertain and depressed. Read our article about the 5 Rs to managing your mental health during COVID-19. Going back to work for the first time can leave you feeling fearful, overwhelmed and vulnerable. This is completely understandable. So many of us are experiencing the same emotions as we negotiate our “firsts” during COVID-19 as lockdown slowly but surely eases and we get back into our normal day-to-day lives again. Don’t let the stress beat you down. It can make you unproductive and even sick. If you feel as if your mental health is becoming compromised, speak to a counsellor at work, or admit to your employer that you are not coping and get professional help.

9. Work from home where possible

Staying home as much as possible is still the best way to slow the spread of COVID-19. So, if your job allows it, rather choose to work from home. Thanks to technology, working remotely has become an easy transition plus employers and employees are seeing the real benefits in it, too. Aside from the cost savings on transport and other company overheads, working from home keeps you safe and many others safe, too.

10. Be safe while travelling

If you are getting to work via public transport or even car-pooling, it is essential that everyone on board wear masks and sanitise hands, too. Make sure that you can keep a distance of at least one seat between you and the other passengers. Place your bag on the seat next to you if you fear someone may sit down without observing the social distancing rules. The NICD has identified these five key moments during a commute to and from work when we should remember to wash/sanitise our hands:

  • Before going on public transport
  • After touching doors, handrails or money
  • After making contact with other people
  • Before touching our eyes, nose and mouth
  • When we arrive at our destinations

Remember it is very important to stay home and self-isolate if you show any COVID-19 symptoms. But do remember to contact your employer and let them know. It may be a good idea to find out from your doctor whether you should be tested for COVID-19 or not, and what the next steps should be.

For more information please contact:

Ms Gugu Nyawose
Psychologist
MA (CLIN PSYCHOLOGY) Zululand (2001)
Ethekwini Hospital and Heart Centre
Telephone: +27 82 427 2083

Dr M Ndhlovu
Clinical Psychologist,
D Litt et Phil South Africa (2011), M Soc Sc (Clinical Psychology ) North West (1999), (Clinical Psychology), BA Hons (Psy) BAEd
Zamokuhle Private Hospital
Telephone: +27 11 923 7814
Email: mjndhlovu@yahoo.com

Disclaimer: Any information contained here is merely a guideline. Always visit your healthcare practitioner for any health-related advice or diagnosis.