Although New Zealand has ditched most Covid restrictions, many companies are struggling to allay employee fears around the potential health risks of returning to the workplace.
This is the view of Paul Wiggans, Managing Director of ActivePure NZ, who says employers are also finding it difficult to attract new staff - and juggling staff resources in the face of extended sick leave.
He says many workers are asking a critical question: "How safe is it for us to go back to the workplace and breathe the same air as our colleagues, managers and customers?
"It's important to recognise that just because you as an individual feel fine at work other people might not, and may be unwilling to discuss the issue. In a recent customer survey we found that 69 per cent of respondents believed that their organisation had a responsibility to ensure staff were protected from viruses like Covid."
He says that after more than two years of focus on the dangers of transmission, close-contact and enclosed spaces, employer and employee confidence in shared workplaces is at an all-time low.
"Many employees are looking to (their) employer to give them confidence to return," he says. "Now more than ever employers are thinking about how clean their working environment is and most now have an advanced awareness of the impact of both airborne and surface pathogens. The issue is that many are unsure of what steps they should take."
Citing recent research by Sanalife in the US (Employee Wellness in The Workplace, April 2022), Wiggans points out that 89 per cent of employees strongly agree that workplace cleaning and disinfecting protocols are crucial - and 66 per cent want improved office cleaning practices before considering a return.
"In our customer survey we found that 60 per cent of respondents wanted their organisation to specifically consider air safety."
His comments come on the back of ActivePure supplying thousands of its air purifier units to New Zealand's public health facilities including hospitals. He says the company's world-leading air safety technology has origins in the NASA space programme and is able to combat pathogens in indoor spaces 24/7, offering as much assurance as possible that the air inside is safe to share.
Wiggans says with the dropping of mask and vaccine mandates, it's natural for people to want to move on from the pandemic. "But sadly, the virus isn't going anywhere soon. France, the UK and Germany are all experiencing dramatic spikes in cases and here in New Zealand, summer may not be the panacea we think.
"Our average reported daily cases are steadily rising again, from a low of 1381 in mid-September, to 2401 as of October 25. That's a 73 per cent increase in daily cases, and should we be concerned? Yes, Covid is still something very much to be avoided; for many it will be a serious illness and for some it will have long-lasting consequences."
Wiggans says many people don't realise that only around 65 per cent of New Zealanders have had Covid, which means that there is huge potential for future disruption. "For employers in the middle of a chronic labour shortage, team members having even one week off can be disastrous when trying to get a business back on its feet - and when they are struggling to get their people working safely together again.
"At the current daily case rate, there will be around 15,000 of us off work, out of school or out of action in a week." The cost of people being at home sick became apparent in 2020 when the pandemic first struck - hitting $1.85 billion that year (according to the Southern Cross 2021 Workplace Wellness Report).
"During the pandemic, the ability to work from home was the saving grace for many businesses. For others, it was only ever meant to be temporary or was never an option at all," Wiggans says.
"For employers, the wins of having remote workers (such as reduced overheads) are typically outweighed by concerns around productivity, team cohesion and training as well as a reduced ability to lead and manage people."
He says there are several "pinch points" in workplaces where people are at greater risk from the transmission of pathogens; these include open plan offices, conference rooms, kitchens and break rooms, communal meeting spaces, toilets and bathrooms and reception areas.
Many employers, he believes, are unsure how to achieve safe sharing spaces without expensive and complex building upgrades which is where, he says, ActivePure's fully portable, plug-in air purifiers come in.
"How many will you need to keep your team safer and encourage them back to work? Probably not as many as you think. Our expert consultants can advise according to specific indoor areas and needs."
For a free assessment contact ActivePure at 0800 58 70 45 or activepure.co.nz