Answering all your Health and Immunity concerns
Meet Dr Colin Hamilton-Davies, our health and immunity specialist. He's here to answer your questions on all aspects of immunity and health.
Dr Colin has over 30 years of experience working as an intensive care specialist. He’s the Clinical Lead for the Acute Cardiac Critical Care department at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, and is also Clinical Associate Professor at University College London. Dr Colin has been involved in research on the immune system for 25 years, and is passionate about helping people proactively improve their immunity and health.
With the emergence of the Omicron variant and the new restrictions it has ushered in, hopes that the pandemic will soon vanish have dimmed, leaving many employers unsure about how best to meet their obligations to protect their workforces over the ensuing winter months while simultaneously meeting their business needs.
Boris Johnson’s unveiling of sweeping new COVID-19 restrictions yesterday has created a further flurry of panic, as businesses must now contend with new work-from-home guidance.
The positive news is that since the start of the pandemic, employers have gained valuable experience in adapting their strategies to keep rising infections at bay. By continuing to be adaptable and creative in their approaches, employers can play a leading role in containing the threat and managing future outbreaks as further variants arise – a highly likely scenario given low vaccination levels in many parts across the globe. In what follows, I have listed some broad measures that you may wish to consider for your business.
Continue encouraging staff to get vaccinated
Vaccination remains the most effective tool to reduce the risks of serious illness, hospitalisation and fatality from the virus. Those who are vaccinated are 6 times less likely to become infected, and up to 12 times less likely to become hospitalised.
The emergence of Omicron has pushed the UK to ramp up its Booster jab programme, and with this, there is a significant opportunity to further encourage staff to seek out this additional layer of protection. Results from the first UK real-world study by UKHSA have shown that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine booster dose offers over 90% protection against severe symptoms from COVID-19 in people aged over 50. The effects of booster jabs on younger populations are still being studied, although medical opinion remains positive.
Adapt return-to-the-office decisions
Boris Johnson’s new restrictions include guidance for Britons to work from home where possible. Still, many employees will need to go into the office, and so businesses must think about how they can ensure that this is done safely.
What is most important here is for employers to decide when it is deemed necessary for employees to come into work. Whereas the factors usually taken into consideration during such decision-making centre on the needs of the workplace, what is usually excluded is the wider effects on communities.
Much is still unknown about the transmissibility of the new variant and the risks of infection, as well as its ability to evade the immunity provided by previous vaccines. When workers are asked to come into the office, they place others beyond the workplace at risk too. There is a strong correlation between workplace transmission and community infection rates, as many workers have to travel to work using public transport – thus placing others at risk.
These wider community effects should form part of the decision-making process.
Improve office layouts
Remote and hybrid working has had a positive impact on the ability of employers to implement social distancing measures in the office. But still, as many employees continue to work in the office, businesses should make every effort to ensure that staff are provided with the freedom to practise social distancing where needed. The government continues to recommend 2 meters as an ideal distance to aim for.
Employers can make the extra effort to protect their workforces over the ensuing winter months by making reasonable changes to office layouts. This means continuing to follow a staggered approach to hybrid working, adjusting desk spaces to allow for greater space, and improving air ventilation by opening windows or using air filtration systems – perhaps the better choice in the current winter environment.
Promote regular testing
Now is definitely the time to be extra stringent when it comes to promoting regular testing among your employees. There is no law in the UK requiring that employees be tested for COVID-19, but many employers are nevertheless taking the decision to bring in testing as part of their workplace policies.
Testing may significantly increase detection of the virus and prevent employees from coming in to work and infecting others. Promoting testing is especially important for those in the midst of organising staff end-of-year functions and Christmas parties.
Boris Johnson has expressed no need for businesses to cancel their end-of-year functions, but implementing a testing policy can easily reduce the risk of your staff event “going viral”.
Educate your staff about health and wellbeing
In previous posts, I have emphasised the importance of looking after your general health and wellbeing in protecting yourself against the risks of severe illness and hospitalisation from COVID-19. People who are obese, for example, are at an elevated risk of serious illness owing to increased inflammation and weakening of the immune system function.
Educating your staff about the importance of looking after themselves should remain at the heart of your strategy for getting through the next few months. If many of your staff work remotely, then make sure they have access to sufficient means to exercise, eat healthily and take regular breaks from work as needed. Home workers are at greater risk of overworking and developing a stagnant lifestyle that can have serious health implications.
Support mental health
The mental health of your staff is entangled with the state of their physical health. Employees who are overworked and burnt out may have compromised immune systems that place them at greater risk of infection and severe illness, even when vaccinated.
As we approach the end of the year, employees are at particular risk of chronic stress, fatigue and burnout. Employers should continue to provide continual support for the mental health of staff, whether through a team of Mental Health First Aiders or Wellbeing Champions, or through the distribution of regular educational content, talks and events. It is critical that staff feel supported and nurtured during this difficult time.
“Dr Colin, in collaboration with Thrive4Life, is keen to provide you with practical advice on various aspects of immunity and health.”