Is COVID-19 the Most Powerful Catalyst for Permanent Workplace Change?

While some precautions and new ways of working were temporary during the initial pandemic outbreak – like masking while at work – others are here to stay, such as remote work for digital knowledge workers and labor market disruptions related to “essential” workers.

COVID-19 has been the most powerful catalyst for workplace change and technology adoption during these past three years. It has also placed new stresses on workers and given pause to the notion of what occupational safety in today’s workplace means.

“The most obvious future-of-work trend today is the role that SARS Coronavirus 2 (COVID-19) has played in our immediate past, the role its many variants and sub-variants play in our present day and what role the coronavirus will play in our future. It is a megatrend that may dictate how future work is organized,” says John Howard, the director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

He shared this observation during a plenary speech made to the National Occupational Injury Research Symposium in May. Many have worked from home during the pandemic, but many others continue to face not only the risk of injury doing jobs in construction, agriculture, mining, forestry, fishing and essential retail, but have continued to work while still trying to protect themselves from COVID 19, Howard says.

All workers and employers were required to consider new precautions and to embrace new ways of working to minimize their risks. While some precautions and new ways of working were temporary, others are here to stay. Howard highlighted three workplace trends that the pandemic specifically accelerated, including: 

  • The acceptance of remote work for digital knowledge workers
  • More interest in the automation of work processes
  • Labor market disruptions across many industries

Driving these trends, according to Howard, is an emerging workplace health and safety factor called “organizational design” that he describes as “the avoidance of unmodifiable physical proximity between workers, their customers and clients,” adding that COVID-19 altered how people interact with each other both in communities and workplaces.

“COVID-19 has driven every industry sector to consider the health and safety considerations of physical proximity in the workplace due to the risk of viral transmission,” he says. Howard adds that it has also forced safety practitioners and researchers to educate themselves in the science of the hierarchy of infectious disease controls such as:

  • Hazard elimination controls such as viral testing and vaccination
  • Engineering controls such as physical distancing and ventilation
  • Administrative controls such as worksite density reduction and remote-enabled work
  • The use of PPE such as face coverings and respirators

As much as everyone wants to see an end to the pandemic and a return to a pre-COVID world, Howard says there’s no one in authority who can say for certain when things might get back to normal. The SARS Coronavirus 2 is not going to suddenly disappear. Private, social and work lives are “on a trajectory” determined by how transmissible, virulent and immune evading the next COVID 19 variant will be during the next few years or decades, he says.

“We’re mindful of how the COVID 19 pandemic has affected our very definition of what is an occupational traumatic injury – beyond the physical to the emotional to the psychological and to the social.”

During the same plenary session, Lorraine Martin, president and CEO of the National Safety Council (NSC), says the pandemic gave rise to key considerations and trends on the future safety of work, including:

  • Future work teams, which Martin says will be lean, distributed and asynchronous. In today’s distributed economy, it’s not always known who gets the work done and where it gets done, she says, adding that outsourcing today can be done in ways not previously imagined.
  • Whole person valuation was a trend heating up long before COVID. It considers the awareness and importance of how health connects with safe workplaces and what it means to be safe and healthy. The pandemic brought this issue to the forefront, and it applies to physical and mental health.

COVID-19 has taken a heavy psychological and emotional toll on many people – some tragically. Both Martin and Howard agree there needs to be greater awareness of and response to these issues in the workplace.

“According to the World Health Organization, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased 25 percent during the pandemic,” Martin says. “The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey showed 41 percent of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression just last year – up 11 percent from the year before. Those are startling and foundational pieces of information that must inform us.”

She adds it’s necessary to look deeper and understand how people in the workplace have been and continue to be affected by the pandemic and to consider what mental health services are available to help them. Martin shared research that shows 100,000 workers in the US lost their lives to unintended opiate overdoses in the last 12 months – up from 38,000 only three years ago.

“These issues don’t stay in our communities. They don’t just stay in our homes. They come into our workplaces and our workplaces can play a huge role in understanding that broader definition of safety,” she says.

“We need to lean into this more and understand what we mean by psychological safety and all the other terms we might use to look at the whole person. (We need to) know that (people are) well and they can do their job in a safe way. Workplaces must be involved in that conversation.”

Martin admits many safety professionals might not believe mental health awareness and response should be a part of their role, and many may find it a challenging issue to address. Be she insists, “there is a connection and a direct intersection between physical and psychological safety.”

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