End-of-year celebrations at the workplace: back or too risky?

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TORONTO – It’s 2021, the majority of Canadians are vaccinated and the winter break is approaching, which raises a question that many employees and employers are currently juggling: will the holidays at work make a comeback , and is it a good idea?

Last year, the holiday party was largely out of the question, with restaurants, bars and venues closed to guests and large groups. Now, with the proliferation of vaccines having helped reopen some aspects of society, including dining halls and large indoor events, some companies and employers are considering bringing back the traditional holiday party for coworkers to celebrate. together.

But is it a good idea with COVID-19 still circulating?

For a health expert, the answer is clear: In-person holiday celebrations are a bad idea.

Colin Furness, a Toronto-based infection control epidemiologist, told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview that he believes face-to-face task forces are always a risk when cases circulate in the community.

“Maybe you can throw an office party and maybe get away with it, but you really have to think about the bigger systemic things,” he said.

“The problem with office parties is, especially given the isolation we’ve had in 20 months, that people really, really want social interaction, which means no masks, which means l alcohol is flowing, which means people get a little strong, a little messy, a little close. And so even the best of intentions can kind of go down the drain. “

Groundbreaking cases of COVID-19 are possible, although relatively rare, and Furness pointed out that we have only just started immunizing children aged 5 to 11, which means this group is still at risk of catching COVID- 19 if a parent transmits it to them. .

“The timing of the holiday season, when it comes to our ability to immunize children, is really bad,” he said.

While children are significantly less likely to suffer serious consequences if they contract the virus, long COVID symptoms such as brain fog are a sign of brain damage, he said, and studies have shown that one in seven to half of children who contract the virus show symptoms weeks later.

“Primary schools are the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “It’s the only biome left in COVID. And so if you want to know the impact of your activities, this is the place to look.

He added that he understood how much people miss this social interaction, but said that in terms of priorities, a holiday party is not very important because it does not boost the economy or benefit people. vulnerable people.

“It pains me a lot to say, ‘We have to hold back,’ but I think we have to hold back.”

As to whether holding a holiday party is a bad idea legally, employment lawyer Andrew Monkhouse told CTVNews.ca that employers are unlikely to be sued if an employee catches COVID- 19 at such a gathering.

“In Canada, there really haven’t been a lot of cases of COVID liability,” he said. “Even if there were to be, say, a lawsuit regarding COVID responsibilities, someone contracts COVID and can trace it specifically to a restaurant [where a work party was held], I guess they could potentially file a claim against both the restaurant and their employer.

“That being said, employers would have very limited liability under Canadian law for an employee who contracts COVID. They should be seriously negligent.

He stressed that a work holiday party should always be presented as an event where participation is voluntary.

“It would probably drastically reduce any potential liability of the company or the employer, because that way it’s the employee’s choice, they don’t have to go,” Monkhouse said.

An employee would only have a real reason to sue if he could prove that his employer went out of his way to endanger him at the party and get him infected with the virus, for example by “forcing staff to kill him. be closer, or they “play a pre-COVID game where it clearly would not be considered acceptable under the current circumstances. “

If a manager pressured an employee to attend an in-person holiday party they were uncomfortable with due to concerns about COVID-19, Monkhouse said employees should know that ‘they can always refuse this type of event.

“Usually if an employee feels like he’s being pushed I think it’s best to just say they can’t do it, sorry, and happy to be together soon”, a- he declared. “At the end of the day, you know, no employee has to go to a holiday party, even before COVID.”

Some employees may fear attending a business event if they have worked remotely from a workplace without a vaccination warrant and are unsure of their coworkers’ vaccine dose. Monkhouse said this specific concern is unlikely to be an issue if employers throw restaurant parties, as many provinces have vaccination mandates for eating out.

Zoom parties may be another option, but after another year of this pandemic, Furness doesn’t think they’ll appeal.

“It’s going to depend on the individual culture of a particular organization,” he said, adding that many have “zoom exhaustion” so far in the pandemic.

Despite COVID-19 fears, some companies are likely to have holiday parties indoors, and Furness said if employers go this route, they should try to make them as safe as possible.

“If I was in charge of: ‘You have to have a holiday party, make it as safe as possible’, yes, vaccine warrants, but also rapid tests at the door,” he suggested. “No one enters without [a rapid test]. This would go a long way in ensuring the safety of the room. And how many HEPA filters are we going to have? I mean, who’s doing the calculation of the size of the airspace, how many people are going to be there? How many portable HEPA filters do we need? So if we have vaccination warrants and rapid tests and you clean the air, this is a party I might even go to. “

He added that air filtration is an important part of securing a space during COVID-19 that many don’t think about.

If you end up attending an indoor office party in person, Monkhouse pointed out that staying indoors all the time may have made our networking skills a bit ‘rusty’ and it’s important to watch your behviour.

“This is something, especially for employees, to be careful of,” he said. “For employers, it’s all about making sure you provide a safe environment, […] just really making sure that people are going to feel safe and that you aren’t going to have any additional problems.


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