It’s not difficult to see COVID-19 as an overwhelmingly negative force. Leaving aside the rate of infection and the global death toll, there’s the complete change to our way of life as well, not to mention the significant impact the virus has had on the economy, both locally and internationally.
Yet for all the negatives COVID-19 has brought to our lives, there are, surprisingly, a few positives that have emerged from the pandemic as well – most notably in the area of occupational health.
What is occupational health?
Simply put, occupational health is the promotion of health and well-being in the workplace – ensuring that all employees enjoy the highest standard of physical, emotional, social and mental health within the working environment. It’s here that COVID-19 has had a role to play, and an unexpectedly positive one at that.
COVID-19 and occupational health – the pros
Think back (if you can) to life at work before COVID-19. No social distancing, no masks, no emphasis on hand washing or sanitising, and no real insistence on sick employees going home.
These days we wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without a mask on, without sanitising and washing our hands regularly, and without standing far apart from each other. What’s more, if we felt even the slightest bit sick we would insist on staying at home, both for our own health, and the health of our colleagues as well.
It’s thanks to measures like these, and an increased awareness of our own personal health, that South Africa was able to skip the flu season almost entirely last year – a completely unprecedented event. In a ‘normal’ year, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) would usually record up to 1 000 cases of flu between April and August. Last year, they recorded just one.
While it’s difficult to measure the impact on productivity and work attendance this might have had, given the challenges of COVID-19, it’s nevertheless encouraging to see just how big an impact a little more hygiene can make.
What does this mean for occupational health going forward?
Will the insistence on strict hygiene measures in the workplace continue once COVID-19 is a thing of the past? It’s difficult to say, but what’s evident is that paying closer attention to health and wellness in the work environment can only have a positive effect.
It’s this positive effect that can in turn help to create a unique opportunity for the occupational health sector – one that will allow it to support healthy employees in returning to work, and safeguard their health while there, hopefully with the help and investment of the government as well.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for all, however an increased focus on personal health and workplace hygiene can only be beneficial in the long run. More productivity, better attendance and increased physical and mental health – they may be small wins in comparison to the bigger issues at hand, but they’re still valuable, nonetheless.