How Contractors Can Prevent Fatigue in Employees Working Remotely During COVID-19

We welcome Andy Thomson from Big Oak Consulting, LLC as our guest blogger today.  For more than thirty years, Andy has worked in a wide variety of infrastructure and. most recently, as a corporate Health, Safety and Risk Director.  He maintains memberships in the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC),  National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA), New England Gas Association and various other professional organizations. Andy has been a champion for the rights of contractors in the areas of construction safety, underground utility damage prevention and contractual liability protections as relate to indemnification reform, and the Cobb Law Group has asked Andy to share some of his knowledge with our clients and readers as we come face-to-face with the challenges of working in an COVID-19 environment.

If your construction organization has been coping with the advent of daily regulation changes and untimely executive orders much the same way that the rest of the construction world has, you are likely facing similar issues to those identified here. We have all been instructed by the federal government to perform COVID-19 risk assessments of our organizations in an effort to “flatten the curve”.  More is at stake than simply allowing the virus to infect your employees. The mental toll that is being exacted is just as real, and in many cases more damaging than the virus itself! Only you can evaluate these risks to your own staff and act appropriately. Failing to act is where the trouble begins!

This article was written in an attempt to help you identify and protect those at greatest risk for the underestimated mental effect of home isolation. Those employees who have been working from home, or other remote locations away from others, however effectively, for longer periods of time are at great risk of mental fatigue and anguish.

If your construction business has been allowed to work all along, or your business has been tied to one of the sixteen critical infrastructure sectors, you’ve likely dodged the issue of lost revenue or payroll difficulties. Bravo!

Regardless of individual company scenarios, a few simple and universal facts are true for all:

  • Employees working outside on crews may be more vulnerable to contracting the virus than those employees working at home, but benefit from routine interaction and scenery change
  • Employees working remotely are less vulnerable to virus contraction at work, but suffering from increased fatigue from loss of social interaction, loss of routine, and in some cases exercise

Let’s expand on these two points. Outdoor construction employees, although suffering from the imposition of additional rules such as the mandatory use of masks and distancing where possible, are still exerting themselves physically and cognitively in the performance of their work. These employees have the security of knowing that they have work when so many in the restaurant and travel industries have been furloughed. COVID-19 societal life for outdoor employees, although impacted, is “livable” provided their status quo remains unchanged and goods and services are accessible. Family challenges are always present, no matter the employee type.

Life is a far different challenge for the administrative employees of many companies who have been asked to work from home by their organizations until the COVID-19 problem is solved. While no one would be accurate in assigning a period of time to this exile to the home office, I believe most would agree that this is likely defined by future widespread vaccination for COVID-19. As of late July of 2020, we still have no clear idea of how long widespread vaccination that leads us back to a movie theater will take!

Administrative employees working from home have a far different workplace than they did before, a stark difference to their field employee counterparts. The workplace of remote employees consists of one to two computer monitors and a temporary but ever-expanding workspace within the home.

Let’s face it, when you lose the routine of coming to a brick and mortar space to work, whatever you may have thought of it in the past, you will to some degree and affectation miss that place and all the other benefits of that routine. The space you made your own to work in, the people you now see only on your computer screen, the myriad of office tools at your disposal such as scanner/copiers, bathroom time not being regulated by your children who are also stuck at home, lunchtime at the bistro near the office, etc. These are the types of lists that we never thought we would need to think about!

Try now to remember what the Department of Labor – OSHA states in their famous General Duty Clause:

“…the employer shall provide a place of work free of recognized hazards…”

“Place of work?” Uh oh, what happens if that place of work is now in the home and consists of a computer screen? What am I legally required to provide? Ethically?

These are questions that most all employers have been asking themselves, especially those who have never had remote working employees before. In the COVID-19 world, almost all the upper level administrative functions such as Human Resources, Accounts payable and receivable and management of other types have been relegated to remote work. These people are meeting via Zoom, embracing technologies that help them complete corporate functions and still producing for us, but they are suffering from excessive fatigue and cognitive “lockup”. Why?

Grappling with the dangers of COVID-19 for many is taking its toll on cognitive function. When we add to this our political environment and that our senses lack the stimulation of a varied indoor/outdoor routine filled with other humans whose facial expressions we can actually see, the sum effect is fatigue. As human beings we need the stimuli that feeds our senses and nourishes our higher cognitive function. We also need to know that other things are happening in the world aside from yesterday’s COVID-19 positive case numbers.

We wish we had a survival guide – a “Scout Handbook” for living in the pandemic world. Until that handbook arrives, here are some strategies that we can all rely on for some stimulation during the exile:

  1. Never let a week go by without videoconferencing with your teams – if we cannot be with one another physically at the office, putting a face to the voice is the next best thing!
  2. Ensure that employees still reporting to your brick and mortar location try working at home for short periods so that if the occasion arises where they are forced to do so, they are prepared for the experience. The shock of being forced to work at home for those very social people among us can be a devastating experience.
  3. Encourage remote working employees who have “shut themselves in” to pack a lunch and go find an outdoor space to sit in for an hour and look at the outside world. We must realize that there are people who have become so phobic about the virus contraction potential that they have literally become shut-ins. A couple of weeks of failed videoconferences or meaningful interaction with others can devastate these employees as well!
  4. Encourage 1 – 2-day vacations in lieu of waiting for the vaccine and the easing of travel restrictions. Everyone is waiting for that day when travel restrictions in our vacation destinations will be lifted and we can all get away for that 1- or 2-week vacation. While waiting for this, burn-out sets in from unrelieved fatigue. Different problems call for different solutions and an unprecedented contemporary pandemic certainly warrants some out-of-the-box thinking!
  5. Sponsor some virtual team building solutions that provide the opportunity to exercise the mind! A creative firm in California has a daily team videoconference where the participants rotate by picking a theme for the next person and all must find a virtual background and wear a personal costume item in support of that theme. This may sound cheesy or a little far out there, but keeping your employees engaged is the goal!

These are but a few tips for coping with “exile” during COVID-19. If you have heard of or used some other solutions to avoid fatigue during this troubling time, please feel free to share!

If you have any questions for Andy about this post or if you are looking for an experienced construction safety consultant to help your business, please feel free to contact him here > >

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