Workplace COVID protocols influence employee behavior outside work; Study

By Ashika Rajan, Trainee Reporter
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Working With Face Mask
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According to a new study from Washington State University (WSU), employer COVID-19 safety measures influenced worker precautions even when they weren’t on the clock.

The study’s findings which appeared in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that workplace cultures that implemented COVID-19 preventive initiatives, such as regular health checks and encouraging sick employees to stay at home, had lower rates of “sickness presenteeism,” or going places when sick.

The effect was observed both within and outside of the workplace, indicating that fewer workers with COVID-19 symptoms showed up to work and other public locations such as grocery stores, gyms, and restaurants.

Safety Measures

Employees working for organizations that implemented strict COVID-19 preventive measures, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, had more optimistic attitudes toward the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines.

Dr. Tahira Probst, WSU Psychology Professor and lead author of the study remarked that “the workplace COVID-19 climate had a direct effect on shaping employee attitudes towards the personal, preventative health actions that the CDC recommends.”

“Public health officials and employers should be aware of the impact that organizations and workplaces can have on stemming the tide of the pandemic. It’s not just that employers have an impact on the transmission that occurs within the workplace, but they are also influencing those same employees’ attitudes and behaviors outside of the workplace,” Dr. Probst added.

During the pandemic holiday rush, the researchers surveyed over 300 working adults recruited on the Amazon Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing website in three waves for the study.

COVID-19 Environment

They surveyed workers in October 2020 to evaluate the COVID-19 environment in their workplaces; in December 2020, they asked about their attitudes toward the CDC prevention guidelines; and in February 2021, about their work and non-work behaviors while sick or exposed to COVID-19.

The study found a connection between the COVID-19 environment in the workplace, employee attitudes toward pandemic preventive measures, and whether people went to work or other public places when sick with COVID-19 symptoms or after being exposed to the virus.

Approximately half of the respondents worked onsite and the other half remotely during the survey period. Also, remote employees were influenced by their employers’ COVID-19 workplace climate, according to the study.

When working for a company with good preventive measures in place, remote workers were less likely to visit public spaces after being exposed to the virus or when sick.

Many organizations in the US, according to the researchers, have long-standing cultures that stigmatize sick leave and encourage illness presenteeism.

The authors point out, is that workplaces can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by encouraging sick workers to stay home, implementing regular health checks, and adopting other CDC occupational health and safety measures.

The pandemic has prompted several companies to reconsider their sick-leave policies, and Dr. Probst is eager to see whether this is a long-term change.

“One of the more enduring consequences of the pandemic might be that organizations not only offer more sick leave but also encourage employees to stay home if they’re sick,” Dr. Probst said.

“Frankly, before COVID-19, a lot of our culture has been: ‘unless you’re gravely ill and can’t get out of bed, you should be at work.’ That behavior spreads diseases and ultimately reduces productivity. We’re hopeful that the pandemic might institute a re-thinking of this norm moving forward,” Dr. Probst concluded.

Related: New WHO study reveals the deadly impact of long working hours