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Written by
on 02 June 2021

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It’s been a strange year, but with the UK’s vaccine rollout solidly underway and the country slowly opening up, many of us are preparing to get back into the office. According to a study by Aviva, over 70% of us are optimistic about getting back to our desks after a year of working from home.

Although not all of us were able to work from home during the pandemic, plenty of us have been out of the office for a long time. Many offices closed during the pandemic, following government guidance for employees to work from home wherever possible.

Working from your living room, home office, or kitchen is a different beast to working in an office, so it stands to reason some of us might be a little bit out of practice.

If you’re an employer or a manager, this could be a point of concern. While you might be excited to get your employees back through the door and the kitchen and break room buzzing again, you should be watchful during the transition.

Working from home can engender bad habits, no matter how effective your work from home policy is, and you should be prepared for people to bring these habits back to work with them. Unfortunately, we’re not just talking about wearing pyjamas to the morning scrum, but behaviours with the potential to be harmful in the office atmosphere.

We’ve discussed previously how employers need to prepare the office itself for the return of office working, with a focus on safety policies, risk assessments, COVID-safe measures, and more, but you might not yet have thought about how employees themselves could impact the effectiveness of existing risk management procedures.

Bad habits

We’re all different at home than we are at work. This switching of personas is known as ‘free-trait behaviour’, and is a natural mechanism used by humans to adapt to their surroundings. During the pandemic, with so many of us working from home, these personas moved much closer together, with many people bringing more personal aspects of themselves to work.

Outside of the office atmosphere and away from regular health and safety oversight, it’s only natural that some employees have gotten lax in their behaviour. That’s not to say that everyone has suddenly lost all self-control, but without any real way to manage bad habits which generally wouldn’t be acceptable at work, health and safety managers have found identifying and tackling these behaviours a challenge.

The main benefit to home working was, of course, that the chances of COVID transmission at work were minimised. An additional benefit was that employees were also moved away from the potential risks often found at work, such as heavy machinery, vehicle loading, lifting injuries, fires, and more. As such, many serious dangers were removed from the equation when employees swapped offices for living rooms.

Conversely, other risks have crept in. Most companies provide work from home policies for their workers to minimise risks – particularly ergonomic – when home-based. However, with the sudden and total shift to homeworking, it became difficult or even impossible to ensure these policies were being followed. As such, employees may have ignored these policies and developed bad ‘habits’ over the past year, which could impact their health or the health of colleagues if brought to the office.

These ‘bad habits’ include:

  • Working through lunch, or eating at desks, which can contribute to burnout, an untidy office, and even bacterial growth.
  • Working all day without breaks. This too can contribute to burnout, eyesight problems, repetitive motion strain and more.
  • Trailing wires and general untidiness, creating potential trip hazards around the office as well as bacterial issues.
  • Using phones and other devices. With phones constantly to hand at home and no oversight, many of us have taken to scrolling Twitter or Facebook when we should probably be working, or in between tasks. This could potentially cause ‘screentime overdose’ issues, or even serve as a distraction on-site and lead to trips and falls which the company could be liable for.
  • Poor posture. We’re all more likely to slouch at home when there’s no one else around. This can cause back problems and even more serious physical issues over time.
  • Not having a definitive ‘hometime’. It’s far easier to work an extra 10 minutes here, or half an hour there at home. Employees may have adapted to this whilst at home, but it could potentially become a serious issue, and again lead to burnout.
  • Perhaps most seriously, forgetting or ignoring risk management procedures, putting employees at risk of physical injury or worse.

As a health and safety manager, you should expect your employees to be out of practice when it comes to working in an office. It’s your job to ensure tackling these bad habits becomes a primary part of the return to the office, to minimise any potential risks or dangers to employees.

So, what exactly can you do?

Preparing employees for return to work post-COVID

If your office hasn’t yet reopened and employees are still home-based, now is the ideal time to start highlighting and tackling these issues. Many workers might not even be aware of the habits they’ve developed, so simply highlighting the general problems prior to returning to work could do wonders.

If people have started returning to the office and you’ve noticed these issues cropping up, you need to take action to identify the problems and minimise them before they take root permanently.

As discussed previously on David Cant’s personal site, davidcant.co.uk, the root cause of most health and safety issues is the ‘human factor’. People are unpredictable, but by identifying the triggers behind their behaviour, you can adjust for its impact. It’s vital that you do more than just tell employees why they should or shouldn’t do something, you need to work closely with them, identify potential triggers and provide the resources needed to mitigate the behaviour.

Now is the perfect time for health and safety refresher training. By that, we don’t mean eight hours of PowerPoint presentations on their first day back, but in-depth, interactive training that clearly illustrates safe working practices and gives employees a reason to care. You can do that by learning to sell your safety message like a top salesperson.

If you need advice, or if your presentation skills are a bit rusty, we’re always on hand to offer advice on health and safety training, assessments, and more. If you think we can help you get your employees back to their desks safely, get in touch.

We also offer a Safety Sounding Board service, providing unlimited jargon-free health and safety advice when you need it. Get quick answers to any burning health and safety questions you might have, by phone or video call, at a time that suits you. Our Sounding Board service is one of the most cost-effective and easy ways to access over two decades of safety expertise.

Returning to the office will be a big change for both employers and employees, but with a bit of effort from everyone – and the right kind of risk management – there’s no reason it can’t be done safely.

For more information, call 0800 1488 677, or use the contact form above.

A chartered (fellow) safety and risk management practitioner with 20+ years of experience. David provides a healthy dose of how-to articles, advice and guidance to make compliance easier for construction professionals, Architects and the built environment. Get social with David on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

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