In the age of covid-19, how should we be changing our habits in the workplace?

Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak late last year, the flu-like virus has spread to more than a 100 countries and has recently been classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).

According to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at John Hopkins University, at the time of writing, nearly 170,000 people have been confirmed to have become infected with covid-19 since the beginning of the outbreak. From that figure, around 6,500 of those have died and just under 80,000 have recovered.

This has undoubtedly called for an unprecedented wave of information on public health and hygiene being disseminated to combat the spread of the virus as governments around the world transition from the “contain” to the “delay” phase of the epidemic.

Such measures are changing our day-to-day lives from the simplest act of not shaking hands to avoiding crowded areas. Inevitably, this has also seeped into the office environment.

So what workplace practices should we be adopting to avoid becoming infected with the coronavirus and to reduce its spread? Business Forward spoke to two health experts to give their advice.

Dr. Heba Barakat, healthcare program manager at the American University in Cairo’s (AUC)  School of Business Executive Education, told Business Forward the key tips to stick to during this challenging period.

“Number one and number ten is washing hands. Not having any physical contact with each other and using a disinfectant everywhere. This is very important for personnel responsible for cleaning. Use disinfectant over all solid surfaces because the virus can be transmitted by touching them. Any sick people should refrain from coming to the workplace. They have to stay at home taking their medications until they prove they are free of symptoms and the disease.”

Professor of pulmonology at Ain Shams University, Adel Khattab, also told Business Forward about his recommendations. “Measures of protection should include spreading awareness.”

Khattab, who was also an advisor for influenza pandemics to the ministry of health from 2006 to 2011, emphasized that the most important measure is to provide clear information to those responsible for monitoring hygiene and health in the workplace. He added that any employee who feels mild symptoms, even before getting tested for covid-19, should immediately self-isolate. “It could still be a case of the common cold, it will not necessarily be the coronavirus. However, in these times, the right thing to do is to immediately distance themselves from the workplace so they do not infect their colleagues. Those are the two most important things.”

Shaimaa Sabah, a warehouse pharmacist at the General Authority for Healthcare and Regulation (GAHAR), added to Khattab’s point of the importance of awareness and information being widely and easily available in the workplace. She specifically pointed out the hand washing techniques that the WHO has recommended everyone practice in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus, which requires one to wash their hands throughly with soap for at least 20 seconds.

According to Sabah, these practices and techniques are already practiced and enforced in hospitals and healthcare facilities and are monitored by the GAHAR to ensure compliance. “I would recommend putting a poster in the workplace describing the correct hand washing technique,” she said, in order for all employees to know exactly how to maintain the correct hand hygiene.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), part of the United States-based Department of Health and Human Services, recommends that for the current period, employers adopt more flexible sick leave policies. These should include not requiring sick employees to present a doctor’s note as clinics and hospitals will very likely already be crowded and overwhelmed with other cases. This policy would reduce the strain on medical facilities and reduce the spread of infection by removing the need for employees to leave their homes.

Another policy the CDC recommends is even more sick leave flexibility to allow employees to take care of sick family members. This would also entail more openness to remote working. During the current pandemic, this is looking to become more and more of a necessity.

In addition to instructions on how to wash hands properly, the CDC also recommends that employers provide more personal hygiene tools in the office for employees to more easily disinfect their hands and avoid infection, such as placing several bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitzers around the office, boxes of tissues to use for touching surfaces and trash cans that do not need to be opened by hand.

Of course, these measures only address short-term issues. It is looking more and more likely that the covid-19 pandemic is going to stick around for the long run and businesses will have to adapt and plan longer-term strategies.

Mona El-Kheshen, founder of Egyptian Professionals Network (EPN), an online-based collaborative forum for Egyptian professionals from across the world, told Business Forward about two key strategies that EPN is working on to help employers ride the storm.

“We are going to do a support program. Phase one of this program will be called ‘EPN Lifeboat’,” which will provide emergency support in the form of guidance and advice for employers to use, El-Kheshen said. In one of their polls they held to ask their business community about what they need the most help with, she revealed that emotional support was one of the most frequently given answers.

“We have a lot of business leaders in our group who feel that on an emotional level, they will be under a lot of pressure and stress because they have to think of their business continuity and employee safety. So, for example, we will host a session about leadership under crisis and crisis management,” she said.

The other inititiative they will be providing training on is how best to prepare for transitioning to remote working and how to optimize it. “We will also be doing a series on how to work remotely, how to work online, how to digitize your workflow. This is a lifeboat that will be relevant to most people.”

El-Kheshen suggested that businesses run practice drills with their entire teams working from home to prepare them for the possibility of long-term remote working and to ensure optimum results.

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