Returning to Work During COVID-19: Tips for Staying Healthy

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  • Many Americans sheltered and worked from home during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. As ‘safer-at-home’ orders are lifted and businesses resume operations, workers are returning to their offices, restaurants, retail spaces, and factory floors.

    Health and safety are prime concerns. The novel coronavirus—like other infectious agents—is invisible. But there’s a lot you can do to preserve your health while on the job. Whether you’ve already started back to work or will soon, these 10 tips offer some protection from COVID-19 and other contagious diseases.

  • 1
    Maintain social distancing.
    Colleagues in the office working while wearing medical face mask during COVID-19

    It’s still safest to maintain 6 feet of distance between you and other people. If you work in an office, you and your coworkers may need to get creative and rearrange the furniture (with your boss’s approval, of course!). If that’s not possible, consider installing barriers between workspaces. You may want to hang a curtain in between desks or use cardboard “walls” to separate workstations.

    If you work in the service or retail industries, keep your distance from coworkers and customers, as much as possible. Back up when answering questions, which will help keep the air your exhale away from the person directly in front of you.

  • 2
    Disinfect your workspace.
    woman in the office wearing a face mask and using disinfectant for sanitizing monitor surface during COVID-19 pandemic

    Your employer is responsible for maintaining a healthy work environment, but you’ll likely feel safer if you disinfect your workspace throughout the day, as necessary. You can use an alcohol-based wipe (70%) or disinfectant wipe to clean off desks, phones, keyboards, and cash registers. You’ll also want to wipe down any handles, doorknobs and other surfaces you regularly touch. Computers, tablets, and cell phones also can be cleaned with disinfectant or alcohol-based wipes.

  • 3
    Use personal protective equipment (PPE).
    businesswoman with protective face mask during COVID-19 pandemic in office building or retail space

    The CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) currently recommends wearing a cloth face mask when in public. Whether you wear a mask throughout the day depends upon your job. Some employers now require employees to wear masks while working. Generally, it’s a good idea to wear a mask when interacting with the public, especially if you cannot maintain physical distancing. If you work alone or in a private office, you shouldn’t have to wear a mask while working. Remember: Wearing a mask helps contain your own respiratory droplets when you sneeze, cough, talk, and even exhale.

    Some workers may need to don gloves and additional protective equipment.

  • 4
    Wash your hands.
    washing hands

    Handwashing remains one of the most effective tools we have to prevent disease transmission. Wash your hands frequently throughout your workday, including after toileting, before eating, and after touching potentially contaminated surfaces such as elevator buttons, doorknobs, telephones, and faucets. Use soap and warm water and scrub all surfaces of the hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

  • 5
    Skip handshakes and hugs.
    coworkers outside on sidewalk with protective face masks greeting each other with a foot shake

    As eager as you may be to see some of your coworkers and clients, it’s best to steer clear of personal contact. In early April 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said, “I don't think we should ever shake hands ever again… Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease—it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country."

    Opt for alternate greetings instead, such as a friendly wave or peace sign.

  • 6
    Minimize in-person meetings.
    smiling woman waving at laptop in the middle of a video conference call

    It’s still not a good idea to gather many people in a small space. Avoid in-person meetings whenever possible, even if you’re all in the same building. Continue to use Zoom and other videoconferencing apps when appropriate, and encourage your colleagues to email, text and call you instead of chatting you up at your desk or in the hallway. If an in-person meeting is necessary, limit the number of people and maintain distance between individuals.

  • 7
    Avoid the cafeteria and break room.
    Woman having lunch

    Eating and drinking together is a favorite human activity, but you can slow the spread of disease by staying out of the cafeteria and break room. Consider eating at your desk, in your car, or alone somewhere outside. Bring food (and coffee) from home and use your own cups and silverware. (Be sure to take them home for cleaning!)

    If you eat in a cafeteria or other shared space, maintain your distance from others.

  • 8
    Choose safer forms of transport.
    man and woman wearing face masks and gloves sitting six feet apart on a wall with bicycle between them

    If you can, skip the carpool and opt out of public transportation. Consider walking or biking to work, if possible. If you take public transportation, wear a cloth face covering throughout your commute. You may want to wear gloves while navigating public transportation hubs and riding the bus or subway. Remove and discard your gloves (without touching the exterior surfaces) as soon as you arrive at your destination; apply hand sanitizer (or wash your hands) and clean your phone and bag with a disinfectant wipe.

  • 9
    Manage stress.
    African American woman smelling essential oil aromatherapy in meditation studio

    People who are stressed are more likely to get sick. Researchers now have convincing evidence that stress negatively affects the immune system, the body’s line of defense against germs and illness. Managing your stress levels can keep your immune system—and body—healthy. Yoga and meditation are two scientifically proven stress busters. You can find free yoga tutorials online; you can also download free meditation apps. Exercise, journaling and singing are other effective stress reducers.

  • 10
    Know your rights.
    Middle age mixed-race woman talking on phone with documents and papers

    Your employer has an obligation to provide a safe working environment. If you are concerned about your working conditions, talk to your manager. If nothing improves, you can file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

    If you have a disability that affects your risk of contracting COVID-19, you can request reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

    Under the Federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), you’re also entitled to up to 2 weeks of pay if you are unable to work because you develop COVID-19 symptoms.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 May 7
  1. What Essential Workers Can Do to Remain Safe During the Coronavirus Outbreak. Hackensack Meridian Health. https://www.hackensackmeridianhealth.org/HealthU/2020/04/26/what-essential-workers-can-do-to-stay-safe-during-covid-19/
  2. Going Back to Work: Tips on What Your Boss Can – and Can’t – Make You Do. FOX Business. https://www.foxbusiness.com/lifestyle/coronavirus-back-to-work-tips
  3. Helping Your Work Team Stay Healthy During COVID-19. Cone Health. https://www.conehealth.com/services/employee-health-wellness/helping-your-work-team-stay-healthy-during-covid-19/
  4. Cleaning and Disinfection for Households. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cleaning-disinfection.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fprepare%2Fcleaning-disinfection.html
  5. Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19. U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3990.pdf
  6. Use Cloth Face Coverings to Slow the Spread of COVID-19. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html
  7. How to Get Around Safely During NYC’s Stay-at-Home Order. Curbed. https://ny.curbed.com/2020/3/17/21178324/nyc-subway-coronavirus-covid-19-citi-bike
  8. Stress Weakens the Immune System. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/research/action/immune
  9. What Happens When Your Immune System Gets Stressed Out? Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-happens-when-your-immune-system-gets-stressed-out/
  10. Worker Protections Related to COVID-19. Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. http://www.dli.mn.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/MN_worker_protections_related_to_COVID_19.pdf
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