There are many things to consider, for both office staff and caregivers, when planning for their return to the workplace. The timing and processes will depend on several factors, including the risk level of the type of work they do, the location of your home care agency, local and state orders, and much more.
It is also crucial to look at how returning to the workplace will impact productivity and efficiency and consider how your staff will feel about returning to an office environment or re-establishing in-home visits with clients.
While you cannot control changing outbreak conditions in your community (which will have a direct effect on your teams’ exposure risk to COVID-19), there are many things you can control as you draw up your return-to-work action plan.
In Part 1: Six Key Considerations for Planning Ahead, we looked at how you can:
- Review and update your risk assessment
- Make an action plan
- Ensure clear and early communication
- Provide training
- Stay well-informed and proactive in planning
- Use software tools to mitigate risk.
Here, in Part 2, we look at nine key considerations to include in your action plan to ensure the health and safety of your home care team – and build their confidence – as they return to the workplace.
These preventative measures are intended to support the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ previously developed Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 and the White House’s Guidelines for Opening Up America Again. They focus specifically on how home care agencies can develop and implement strategies, such as engineering controls, basic hygiene, social distancing, identification and isolation of sick employees, and workplace controls and flexibilities.
1. Engineering controls – adapting the workplace
Before your staff return to the workplace, you can use the knowledge we now have about the spread of COVID-19 to take preventative action to safeguard them, including:
- improve ventilation systems
- open windows/doors to allow the flow of fresh air from outdoors
- create additional space between staff work stations, for example, ensuring there are at least two empty desks on either side of them
- erect physical barriers/shields between work stations, where it is not possible to keep the recommended distance
- regularly clean and disinfect all equipment and surfaces, especially those in high-traffic areas
- facilitate the use of individual rather than collective transport, for example, making additional parking available or a place for storing bikes securely, and encouraging workers to walk to work, where possible
- put measures in place to reduce exposure from members of the public, including clients, visitors and delivery people.
- turn on a COVID-19 Toolset to check staff before they clock in.
These preventative measures will help to reduce COVID-19 transmission before all staff can return fully to the workplace. Be sure to inform staff about changes and provide them with any new procedures and training before they resume work.
2. Basic hygiene – preventing/minimizing infection risks
One of the best ways to protect your staff and caregivers is to prevent/minimize exposure to the virus. Your plans need to be communicated and executed efficiently, with complete compliance to the CDC, state and local guidelines. Control measures will need to be in place to prevent infection risk and, if this is not possible, minimize exposure.
You should begin with collective measures and then add individual control measures, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), as applicable to your workplace or the type of work your staff are carrying out.
- provide soap and water or appropriate hand sanitizer and advise staff to wash their hands frequently
- put up posters that reinforce the key messages of hand hygiene, mask-wearing, safe distancing, etc., in areas where they will be seen
- clean your premises frequently, especially surfaces, door handles, and equipment that staff members share
- encourage use of facemasks in all enclosed, shared spaces, including cars, vans and public transport
- train workers in the correct use of PPE, ensuring that they follow the regulations and guidance available on the use of facemasks and gloves.
Where possible, continue to deliver your home care services remotely rather than in person, and ensure that only workers who are essential to the job return to the workplace initially. Also aim to minimize the presence of third parties.
You can currently mandate a digital health assessment for anyone who visits your workplace to reduce third-party risk to your staff from outside your home care agency.
3. Manage capacity – social distancing
It is important to remember the high risk of having too many people in close proximity. As far as possible, aim to keep the population density in your workplace to a minimum, to reduce physical contact between staff members. Some ways to achieve this, where appropriate, include:
- continue with remote working where feasible
- resume returns to work in stages or flexible work hours/staggered shifts
- reduce contact between different parts of your business at the start/end of shifts
- arrange the timing of breaks to reduce the number of people sharing kitchen, cafeteria or staff room facilities
- ensure there is only one worker at a time in bathrooms and changing rooms
- put signs up around the building to remind staff of social distancing rules
- demarcate flooring in high-traffic areas to encourage people to maintain appropriate distance
- organize shifts to take into account cleaning and sanitation services
- where close contact is unavoidable, it should be kept to less than 15 minutes.
While this can seem like a considerable challenge, SMARTcare technology can help you quickly develop a smarter approach to capacity planning and proactively prevent overcrowding. With the correct real-time, actionable data available in an easy-to-use dashboard, you can effortlessly make informed office space and location decisions needed to protect your staff.
4. Identifying and isolating sick employees
While you will be taking every precaution in the workplace to minimize risk, there is no 100% guarantee that staff members will not contract the virus. If you are not already aware, you will need to familiarize yourself with the process of contact tracing and the protocols of quarantining.
Contact tracing is the process of identifying people who have been in contact with an individual that tests positive for COVID-19 and then providing them with recommended actions, for example, self-isolating. To work well, it requires gathering and acting on information about the spread of the virus rapidly.
However, contact tracing can put a considerable strain on your HR team if you don’t have an automated system in place for tracing and contacting employees. With a fast, effective, automated contact tracing system in place, like SMARTcare’s COVID-19 Toolset, the entire process becomes much easier to manage, ensures action can be taken immediately and improves employee confidence.
While a recent survey found that 51% of people want to be informed immediately if a colleague has tested positive for COVID-19, 24% also expressed concerns about the use of track and trace tools and their privacy. Therefore, it is important to make sure your staff understand you are placing user protection, confidentiality, and trust above all else and that you will keep them and their data protected by anonymity whenever possible.
5. Protect vulnerable workers
In this early part of the journey back to work, you must keep high-risk office staff and contractors away from your workplace.
Your action plan needs to include measures to protect the most vulnerable, including older people, pregnant women and those with chronic conditions. You will also need to make sure you know about any employees with close family members who are high risk.
If possible, ask the vulnerable staff (including those with close family members who are at high risk) to continue working remotely for the time being.
In the case of your caregivers, whose work by its very nature requires them to be in close contact with high-risk clients, make sure your action plan contains the highest levels of protection. This will need to include the provision of PPE and sanitizer and training in their effective use.
Using SMARTcare’s COVID-19 Toolset, you can easily increase protective measures for your caregivers and clients, including:
- setting up regular reminders for sanitizing
- tracking both caregivers and clients that have been vaccinated
- identifying, raising attention, and alerting those of possible higher risk in the scheduling software (helping you make better health and safety decisions)
- setting specific client tags and staff tags, so scheduled tasks can be assigned only to those caregivers who have been vaccinated (you can filter the list of clients and staff on staff/client management by COVID vaccine tags to see everyone who has been vaccinated).
6. Give your staff workplace flexibility
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many home care agencies have adapted to working remotely and, where possible, reducing the amount of business travel and in-person visits. In many cases, this has proved to be a very positive change – with a recent industry survey reporting higher job satisfaction among caregivers in the last 12 months.
Many home care agencies that have been successfully using remote working for office staff for the first time are considering adopting it as a long-term practice. Innovative agencies are using the experiences gained during the COVID-19 pandemic to evaluate, revise and develop remote policies and procedures, giving their caregivers and office staff greater workplace flexibility. This could also help reduce your office rent if you can partner with shared office space and collaboration spaces, giving you more flexibility.
Consider including any remote adaptations in your action plan where they have shown to be beneficial to your office staff, caregivers and clients.
Again, be sure to communicate any revisions or changes to ensure your employees and clients fully understand how to make use of available flexible work options and remote technology.
7. Be prepared for potentially high rates of absence
Depending on the infection rates in your local area (and the protocols in place), you may be in the unenviable position of having a reduced number of staff currently available to return to work. The absence of a substantial number of employees, even if only temporary, is likely to cause a strain on your continuing home care operations.
You will need to adapt workloads to accommodate this reduced workforce, for example, implementing new methods and procedures and changing roles and responsibilities. It may also be necessary to rely on interim staff for a limited period. Ensure all employees receive any additional training and support and are capable of carrying out any new tasks assigned.
While the available members of your team will need to be flexible, it is essential that you do not put them in a situation that endangers their health or safety. Your action plan should aim to keep any additional workload as low as possible, ensure that it does not continue over an extended period and monitor the situation to avoid overwhelming individual team members. Be respectful of the rules and agreements on working hours, time off and rest periods, allowing staff to disconnect when not at work.
8. Consider additional support for workers suffering from anxiety or stress
Many of your employees may already have experienced several stressful events in the last 12 months, like the serious illness/death of a loved one, financial difficulties, problems in personal relationships, caring for elderly/chronically ill relatives and home-schooling their children.
In returning to work, they are likely to feel additional pressures, especially around the risk of infection. These pressures, combined with the strains experienced over the last year, may well result in higher stress levels and potential mental health problems.
With remote working and physical distancing measures in place, these problems are even more likely, as usual coping mechanisms, such as direct contact with colleagues and sharing problems, are not as readily available.
Consider having regular online team meetings, in addition to providing daily communication and support. This could range from:
- managers asking employees how they are doing more often
- facilitating communication or buddying between colleagues
- making changes in work organization/work tasks to reduce stress
- creating an assistance program or coaching service
- offering contact with an occupational health service
- providing information about publicly available sources of support and advice.
It is essential that your staff do not feel isolated or under excessive pressure. Where possible, be prepared to be flexible in working hours and productivity and make sure you communicate this to your employees.
9. Make provision for staff members who have been ill
It is now known that while most people (about 80%) recover from COVID-19 without requiring any special treatment, a small proportion of those infected become seriously ill and develop long-term health problems.
When making your action plan, you will need to consider that some of your staff may require special consideration even after being declared fit for work. They may need their work tasks to be adapted or take additional time off to undergo physiotherapy, etc.
Any staff members that had to spend time in intensive care, as a result of contracting the virus, may face specific challenges in returning to their regular work duties.
Health services and occupational therapists are best placed to advise on taking care of workers who have been ill and on adaptations that you may need to make in the workplace.
Bringing your home care team back on-site – in a way that minimizes risk, makes them feel safe and protected, and reduces risk to your business – is no mean feat.
The only way to deliver an efficient and effective return-to-work action plan is by automating as many of the processes as possible. If you do not already have an automated software solution in place, like SMARTcare’s Home Care Platform, now is the time to start. It will give you access to the best practices in home care and provides easy-to-use COVID19 toolsets so that you and your home care team can confidently return to normal work more safely.
Let us know how we can help!
To apply for Tool Set access, agencies can go to https://smartcaresoftware.com/resources/covid19toolset-apply/