Returning to Work During COVID-19: Tips for Staying Healthy
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.
1Maintain social distancing.
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.
2Disinfect your workspace.
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.
3Use personal protective equipment (PPE).
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.
4Wash your 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.
5Skip handshakes and hugs.
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.
6Minimize in-person meetings.
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.
7Avoid the cafeteria and break room.
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.
8Choose safer forms of transport.
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.
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.
10Know your rights.
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.