70% US Energy Sector Workers not Ready to Return to Office: Study

More than 70% of workers in the US energy sector still prefer working from home to returning to their offices now that lockdown sanctions are being eased

As States across the US reopen after weeks-long coronavirus lockdown, more than 70 percent of the workers in the US energy sector still prefer working from home to returning to their offices as they fear contracting the deadly COVID-19 virus, according to a study. The study, a collaboration between the University of Houston, Robert Gordon University, and Texas A&M University, involved 448 energy workers, 81 percent of whom normally work in an office.

The study found that more than 70 percent of workers preferred to continue working remotely. About 20 percent of those surveyed said they would prefer taking an unpaid furlough to a physical return to their offices next month. And nearly 5 percent said they would consider quitting rather than returning to the office now.

“Workers expected good sanitation and cleaning protocols, as well as solid supplies of masks, sanitiser and supervisors who they feel, are committed to eliminating workplace transmission of COVID-19 felt more comfortable,” said Indian-American co-author of the study Ramanan Krishnamoorti, who is chief energy officer at the University of Houston (UH).

The researchers make a number of policy recommendations for human resource professionals, supervisors and other company executives.

Christiane Spitzmueller, professor of psychology at the University of Houston and an expert on work-family issues, said the study offered insights into other factors workers will consider as they return to work. “Those who live in multi-generation households were warier about returning to work,” she said.

Researchers also found that employees with health issues that can raise the risks of contracting COVID-19 were no more reluctant to return to work than those without pre-existing health conditions. Similarly, older workers, who also are at heightened risk, were more likely to return to work than younger workers.

Among other findings, 6.6 percent of respondents said they had experienced COVID-19 symptoms but had been unable to get tested. Three had tested positive for COVID-19. 25 percent reported pre-existing conditions that put them at increased risk of complications from the virus.

While most respondents said their physical health remained good, the reported mental health issues exceeded pre-COVID-19 national norms. A total of 28 percent said they had experienced six or more days of poor mental health in the previous month. Energy workers who had been laid off and those struggling to balance work and family responsibilities were at particular risk.

The study suggests concerns about mental health issues in the workforce will need ongoing attention. Rhona Flin, professor of industrial psychology at Aberdeen Business School and a co-author, said those concerns were particularly pronounced for workers who had been laid off. “Discussing mental health issues will need to become a more routine part of the workplace. Laid-off workers have suffered the most during this pandemic,” Flin said.

The study concludes with that and other recommendations for company executives.

Valentini Pappa, a researcher with the Texas A&M Energy Management Institute, said employers may wish to consider a slower-than-planned return to physical workspaces given employees’ reluctance to return, as well as acknowledging issues around childcare and other work-family conflicts. Employers also may consider adding mental health training for supervisors and managers, she said.

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