How to go back to work and school safely after lockdown

Man at work

In some places in the world, coronavirus lockdown rules are beginning ease, while in others, they remain quite strict, for the time being. Wherever you are, the reality of life slowly returning to ‘normal’ is something we all need to start preparing for. Healthy Food Guide editor Jenny de Montalk looks at expert advice on how we can best support mental and physical health while transitioning back to the workplace and school.

As we return to public life, the key practices that will help keep us from contracting or spreading COVID-19 remain the same, according to Massey University professor Murray Cox.

“Be sensible and be careful,” Professor Cox says.

“The old reminders are still there – keep gatherings small, remain physically distant, stay home if you’re sick, and wash your hands,” he says.

Official advice includes:

  • Keeping your distance from other people in public
  • If you’re sick, staying home. Don’t go to work or school. Don’t socialise
  • If you have symptoms of cold or flu, calling your doctor or local health line and getting tested
  • Washing and drying your hands thoroughly and frequently, especially after going to the toilet, coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose, or looking after someone who is unwell, and before handling or eating food
  • Sneezing and coughing into a disposable tissue or your elbow
  • Regularly disinfecting surfaces
  • Self-isolating immediately, if you have been told to do so
  • Keeping track of where you’ve been and who you’ve seen.

For advanced hygiene practices head here.

How to support kids back to school after coronavirus lockdown

Going back to school, kindergarten or day care may be a relief, exciting or worrying for parents and children, or a mixture of emotions. It’s important to acknowledge these feelings are normal and be gentle on yourself and your children.

Child psychiatrist and paediatrician Hiran Thabrew recommends a combination of preparation, adjustment and care to support the transition.

“Children feel safe and thrive in a predictable environment. So, as you may have done when we entered lockdown, think about what the new family routines will be.

“Are your children returning to school? If so, for how long each day, how will they get there and what might be different at school? How will your work routines change their time with you after school?

“Talk about these issues as a family and consider drawing up a new family routine that you pin to the fridge, so that everyone knows what’s coming. Include both necessary tasks and some fun ones. Try this out for a week and adjust it as required,” Dr Thabrew suggests.

This time will likely result in different reactions from your children, he says, and it is important to let them know these feelings are okay and to support them to manage them by checking in on them regularly, without dwelling too much and increasing their anxiety.

“Some will be thrilled to hang out with their friends, others will be dreading going back to regular classes at school; some will be dying to get back to sports, others will be anxious about catching COVID-19 after weeks of staying away from people and relentlessly washing their hands.

“Let your children (and fellow adults) know that it is okay to feel whichever way they feel, but that it is also important to manage these feelings in order to do the things you decide to do as a family over the coming weeks.”

For children who have conditions, such as anxiety or autism spectrum disorder, and struggle with new routines, Dr Thabrew recommends taking a little extra time to support the transition.

“Some things that may help are paying a visit to school, starting with half days and having some extra 1:1 time after school until their new routines have been established.

“Don’t forget to give them time to play – both for fun and to release any stresses of the day (there is no age limit on this piece of advice).”

Finally, if your child is struggling and you are concerned about their mood or behaviour, reach out to their GP.

How to transition back to work safely after lockdown

The most important piece of advice is do not go to work if you feel unwell. Call your doctor or health line to arrange for a coronavirus test and stay at home until you have been given the all clear.

Returning to the workplace may bring up a mixture of feelings, whether you have been working from home or unable to work at all.

For all the inconvenience and monotony of isolation, lockdown did provide a sense of protection and security, according to Victoria University and Umbrella Health clinical psychologist Dougal Sutherland.

If you have suffered with anxiety or depression prior to lockdown, keep an eye out for signs of symptoms re-emerging and seek help early on, Dr Sutherland says.

Your workplace and practices may be quite different from before, with physical distancing required and extra hygiene precautions needed. It’s important you are able to discuss any concerns you have with your manager or employer and let them know if you have any specific pressures that may affect your ability to work, so they can help accommodate your transition safely.

University of Otago human resource management senior lecturer Paula O’Kane says employers’ expectations of their employees will be an important part of a safe transition back to work.

“There are health and safety issues around workstations and workload, isolation and connection. These may have been pushed to one side during lockdown but cannot be ignored forever. Workplaces need to facilitate new arrangements for work. This involves conversations and communication, compassion and understanding,” Dr O’Kane says.

“For those able to continue to work from home, employers should engage in open conversations about whether this can and should continue, and in what form it should take,” she says.

“Expectations need to be set, through discussion, and these have to be reinforced by the organisation. People need to be allowed to worry, be respected, and be supported.”

University of Canterbury business and law associate professor Bernard Walker says business groups who have successfully lobbied for their interests during lockdown need to take seriously the social responsibility that comes with that.

“For all workplaces, it will be demanding, keeping very high standards for working safely under Covid-19. Physical spacing, adjusted work practices and hygiene are matters that all businesses will have to take on board in a new, serious way,” Dr Walker says.

How to use public transport safely

University of Auckland public health senior research fellow Amanda Kvalsvig says it’s important to be aware of the risk of people using public transport who may have COVID-19 but don’t have symptoms yet, so are unaware they are infectious.

Buses and trains are environments that are particularly risky for transmitting viruses, so it’s vital we use them sensibly.

This means sitting or standing apart from other passengers, using hand sanitiser if you have it, avoiding touching surfaces were possible, and practising good cough and sneeze etiquette.

If you choose to wear a mask (in some countries, it’s mandatory) make sure you always follow the advice for safe use:

1. wash hands with soap and water or use hand sanitiser
2. place mask over nose, mouth and chin
3. secure on head with ties or elastic
4. adjust to fit – secure on your head, fitting snuggly around your face
5. avoid touching or adjusting your mask during use.
To remove a mask:
1. wash hands with soap and water or use hand sanitiser
2. avoid touching the front of the mask
3. if the mask has ties, untie the bottom, then top tie
4. remove from face
5. immediately place mask in washing machine to hot wash
6. wash hands with soap and water or use hand sanitiser immediately.

How to help others transition back to public life

Aside from following all the key hygiene practices and physical distancing that will help prevent the spread of COVID-19, it’s important to be mindful of the different pressures other people are under.

The social and economic consequences of COVID-19 are still emerging, and some people may be suffering more than others, so Dr Sutherland says it’s important to remember to be kind.

“Businesses may be lost, houses may need to be sold, help may have to be sought when it was previously never needed.

“For those who have lost their jobs or significant levels of income, breaking out of our bubbles may bring with it feelings of loss, shame, and guilt as we come face-to-face with these harsh realities and have to front up to others.

“In these times the message of being kind to one another, and being kind to ourselves – which can often be more difficult than being kind to others – should not be lost,” he says.

First published: May 2020

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