The coronavirus year: The pandemic revolutionised the way we work

Kaksi terveydenhoidon työntekijää työpaikallaan.
Photo: Jussi Hellsten

The coronavirus year was a time of great changes. The pandemic had a tangible effect on Occupational Health Helsinki, where illness prevention and work ability promotion among the staff were put on the back burner.

Unit Manager Ritva Teerimäki from Occupational Health Helsinki describes the year as a tsunami, which made it necessary to reform several elements, including the management system.

‘The pandemic started a whole new life for us. We were contacted via different channels at nearly double the normal rate, and all the contact channels, including our chat, quickly became swamped.’

The first thing was, therefore, to ensure sufficient capacity. The chat received a separate line for assessing people’s need to get tested. The testing volume had to be increased fast and testing extended to workplaces as well. Moreover, some services had to be outsourced. During the worst phase, 11–12% of the people tested were testing positive.

Those infected by the virus also needed access to medical care, and therefore a separate coronavirus clinic with a separate entrance was required as well. The 20-member occupational health care coronavirus team supported the epidemiology work of the Social Services and Health Care Division, and the occupational health care services began operating seven days a week.

Less resources were spent on their main duties, i.e. preventative medicine and promotion of people’s ability to work.

When summer arrived, the situation calmed down, but the following autumn the pandemic picked up pace again. By that point, some of the coronavirus patients from the previous spring, suffering from long-term symptoms, were also seeking treatment. Teerimäki says that some of the City’s employees have had severe symptoms, which may impact their future ability to work.

However, she praises the city organisation for taking such quick action and using knowledge to manage the processes. The units’ coordination teams were fast to assess the situation, and new management structures suitable for a period of crisis were quickly developed.

‘The main thing was to ensure, right from the start, that people could continue to work safely and that the City’s services would remain operational. If the entire staff had fallen ill or had had to quarantine, the work would have been left undone.’

Initially, the situation was made worse by the lack of information about the virus. The guidelines needed to be changed several times as more information became available. At the end of the year, the next big step was to kick off the vaccination scheme, and some of the staff members in the social services, health care and rescue sector were able to get theirs before the year was out.

‘The pandemic has highlighted the importance of support from supervisors. Many people felt distressed when the first cases occurred: what needs to be done, who can continue to work and how should the information about the cases be passed on? This put a lot of strain on the supervisors.’

However, Teerimäki believes that the cooperation with the Social Services and Health Care Division epidemiologists was very good.

Increased self-management

The whole country, including the City of Helsinki and Occupational Health Helsinki, took a big step forwards in digitalisation. Remote appointments became commonplace, even though some remained – and continue to take place – face to face. Teerimäki predicts that the digitalisation boost caused by the pandemic will have a lasting effect on our operating culture. This is also necessary, because the coronavirus has resulted in a huge backlog in social and health care, which can be tackled by digitalising some of the work processes.

Furthermore, the exceptional times proved how well people are able to manage their own work. As the supervisors’ workload increased, others began to shoulder more responsibilities, helping them remember things that needed attention, for example.

‘It was nice to notice that there was always someone keeping their eyes open. No one tried to assign any blame if the supervisors were in too much of a hurry to spot absolutely everything.’ 

Teerimäki emphasises the importance of caring for people’s well-being, because the exceptional circumstances are not yet over. The demand for mental health services has skyrocketed, and this trend was evident even before the pandemic. That is why occupational health care has increased the number of low-threshold mental health services it offers.

‘Everyone must care for their own well-being and be aware of their personal capacity to cope. Many hobbies will remain on hold for a while longer, so what other ways can we find to enjoy life and introduce variety?’

In addition to the Social and Health Care Division, the staff of the Education Division faced some challenges during the pandemic. The management had to be on a constant state of alert as events unfolded.

However, despite the pandemic, the number of sick leave days only increased in certain areas. When the more extensive shift to remote work took place, the reduction in sick leave days became a nationwide trend.

In comparison to the previous year, however, the amount of sick leave taken increased to 4.8 per cent by the end of the year.

‘The best reward for having endured these exceptional times is for everyone to stay healthy.’ 

Hand hygiene, social distancing and testing are important factors for work safety

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of workplace health and safety. We followed various authorities’ guidelines meticulously to protect our staff from the virus.

The key elements of workplace safety are largely the same that apply during our time off from work: good hand hygiene, social distancing and, if symptoms appear, staying at home and getting tested. In addition to these, workers whose roles allowed them to work remotely began doing so in the spring.

The necessity of wearing PPE was determined based on the risk of catching the virus when carrying out specific duties.  

As we gained a better understanding of the virus’s spreading mechanisms and the rates began to accelerate, we installed plexiglass safety screens at our customer service desks, restricted the number of customers and employees in public facilities and started recommending wider use of masks. 

In the spring, workplaces updated their risk assessment protocols to meet the needs introduced by the pandemic. This allowed us to ensure that the work could be carried out safely, with minimal risk of infection.