The office is one of the most dangerous places to be with COVID-19 but this may help

The office will look very different when workers go back. Design, seating, and how many people are allowed to work at the same time will all be assessed as a poorly ventilated, crowded office is one of the worst places to be when there is an extremely infectious virus in the world. However, a new study finds that working while social distancing might be one of the best ways to slow the spread of sickness.

The workplace is where up to a third of sickness spreads, so staying apart at the office keeps pandemics at bay, new research shows. This is another practice to study and try out during the coronavirus pandemic.

Work is where we spend most of our time, so keeping apart there, or teleworking, is likely one of the best ways to stop giving one another a disease, according to researchers review of 15 studies around the globe of H1NI influenza, which spreads via cough, sneeze and touch.

This might spur testing of social distancing at work on the spread of COVID-19, another highly contagious and deadly respiratory disease unleashing havoc right now. The study from BMC Public Health shows, “…workplace social distancing measures alone produced a median reduction of 23% in the cumulative influenza attack rate in the general population. It also delayed and reduced the peak influenza attack rate.”

Scientists said, “the most frequent workplace social distancing measure assessed was a reduction in workplace contacts by 50% for the entire duration of the outbreak.” 

These are huge numbers of slowdown that could keep many from getting ill. Some big companies are already betting on it.

The good of workplace distancing

Social distancing at work is shown to slow down how fast and how many people get the peak of the worst spread. “These studies reported later peaks with the intervention compared to no intervention (median delay to peak for workplace social distancing alone = six days),” researchers said.

There are several extra benefits to staying away from your open office buddy who might just be sniffling. It buys time for researchers to develop vaccines, protect workers from missing too much work, and ultimately save lives. It can prevent some of the worst parts of a pandemic from ever happening. And researchers wanted to see if this could help right now in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. 

There are other potential benefits. Social distancing might help get you out of terrible situations associated with the cubicle, from a loud talker to sexual harassment. And many people find working from home to be more efficient or allow more time with family.

The bad of workplace distancing

It’s important to avoid myths that this research presents a cure-all for getting to work in the middle of a bad illness. The researchers looked at a different disease, they noted the possible bias in the work they looked at, they noted many of the studies were based on models instead of actual workplaces. 

Researchers warned social distancing shouldn’t happen early as flu first starts since people get burnt out fast on staying distant. They mentioned potential side effects on people’s pay or emotional health being separated from their usual workplace, or those that this does not apply to, including many workers that have to go to a semi-truck or cash register for their workplace. Overall, it’s a hopeful spark for more research than an answer.

The science says workplace social distancing is worth trying

Listening to your doctors or local hospitals helps when figuring out social distancing at work. “Finally,” researchers said, “effectiveness was reported to be greater when workplace social distancing was combined with other nonpharmaceutical or pharmaceutical interventions. The findings underscore the importance of coordination between employers and state/local health departments to potentially enhance impact using a combination of measures.”

Social distancing at work shows prevention of highly contagious flu, a good outcome to try to copy in the midst of a pandemic. 

And workplaces are ripe for change in how we interact with our colleagues after the coronavirus pandemic. Overall, it’s a hopeful spark for more research than an answer. Staying several feet away from a manager might be nice, and is definitely worth trying to save lives.