Maintaining two-metre rule when returning to work will be 'impossible'

Guidance from health and safety body advises employers to assess risks to wellbeing as well as virus transmission when bringing employees back.

An international health and safety body has warned employers to focus on the risks to employee wellbeing, as well as virus transmission when bringing staff back to places of work.

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) has told employers they will need to create a “new normal” working culture as they begin to plan for reopening after lockdown, with workplaces likely to see changes in attitudes – as well as safety procedures – that could cause a risk to workers’ health and wellbeing if not managed properly.

In its new guidance – Returning safely – the IOSH encourages workplaces to adapt communication strategies and workloads to manage the risk of mental ill-health among staff.

Richard Jones, head of policy and regulatory engagement at the IOSH, emphasised the need for employers to put thorough plans in place before bringing staff back into the workplace. “Any organisations that haven’t already made plans need to develop them and take precautionary action now,” he said. “It’s not just about opening workplaces and expecting workers to return, it must be safe and healthy and create a new normal.”

Jones added that employers needed strong leadership and a planned, risk-control approach that included “full consideration around how any changes implemented could impact on the mental health and wellbeing of staff”.

Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind, said the coronavirus outbreak had caused “large and sudden changes to our lives, including the way we work”, and that adjustments can present “challenges to our mental health and wellbeing”.

She advised that, where possible, employers should give staff the option to work from home longer term or come back to work in a phased approach and to solicit regular feedback and make changes where possible to support their wellbeing during this return.

It is also important that staff returning to work are as educated as possible about the measures their employer had put in place to limit health risks, said Joanne Cassidy, clinical occupational health manager at BHSF. “Some people who may have pre-existing conditions are returning to work,” she said, noting that they would likely be apprehensive about coming back into the workplace. “It’s about keeping people as informed as possible, so they are more comfortable and confident.”

Since some organisations have started the process of returning to work, some sectors have expressed concern about the government’s requirement that people remain two metres apart at all times, as it makes their business unsustainable. This has been voiced as a particular concern in the hospitality sector.

Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, told The Times that while only a fifth of pubs would be able to operate with a two-metre rule in place, relaxing the guidance to one metre “would put the majority of pubs back in play”.

Richard Walker, managing director of supermarket Iceland, warned that many businesses would not survive if the two-metre rule was enforced “too zealously”, while Edwin Morgan of the Institute of Directors said maintaining two metres’ distance would be “impossible” for many businesses.

Government guidance for workplaces during the coronavirus pandemic says two-metre distancing should be maintained where possible and advises that, where it is not possible, other measures should be introduced to limit the risk to workers.

Downing Street said yesterday it had no plans to reduce the two-metre rule following advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.

This article was originally published by C&IT's sister publication People Management.

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