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Will Covid-19 change approaches to wellbeing for the better?

4 Jun 2020 By Siobhan Palmer

The crisis could bring global PPE standards, mini risk assessments before staff can log on at home, and greater interdepartmental cooperation on  health and safety

Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic has put the issue of workplace wellbeing into much sharper focus for HR professionals. Whether staff are furloughed, working from home or still grafting on the socially distanced frontline, every employer is having to put extra consideration into keeping their workers safe and well.

So how might this affect businesses in the future? What will the ‘new normal’ of occupational health, safety and wellness be? People Management spoke to some industry experts...

“I’ll never have to explain what PPE stands for again”

Louise Hosking, vice president of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health

There are several things we often deal with as occupational safety and health professionals: asbestos, fire safety, legionella, slips, trips and falls. For me, Covid-19 will have to be built into safety management systems.

Health and safety has not always had a great rap. In the past, businesses have had an attitude of ‘oh, it’s another risk assessment’. But they’re having to get involved with that risk-based approach in a way they’ve never done before. I think it’s going to change the way people view what we do.

It’s thrown a spotlight on health and safety in a way that’s never been there before: we’ll never have to explain what PPE stands for again, and all the key messages we talk about all the time are now being talked about every day.

I’m seeing cooperation I’ve never seen in my career – HR working with occupational safety and health, working with finance, and talking about things that have to be done in a really different way. We’ve been talking to our counterparts globally, too, which has been phenomenal. There are different standards for PPE across the world, but it’s the same things that make people ill. Maybe this will encourage us to have global standards, not just national or European ones. 

When people get back to the workplace, there’s likely to be another spike in mental health concerns. That’s an issue occupational health is going to have to help handle, but the structure and management of companies is also important. Leaders have got to be involved with that process, and at the moment they are stepping up. Someone once said to me that getting to grips with psychological safety is like managing jelly, because it can be a tricky concept to grasp. But leaders are having to deal with these issues on a huge scale, and are adapting really quickly.

If you look after your workforce’s wellbeing there’s a positive return on investment. Coming out the other side, I hope industry sees the importance of looking after our nation’s health. There’s a massive group of people carrying out essential services, and we’re hugely indebted to them. I hope we don’t forget that.

“Employers will realise occupational health’s preventative role is particularly valuable”

Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at the Institute for Employment Studies

The Institute for Employment Studies surveyed people working at home during the first two weeks of lockdown. A fifth (20 per cent) had been working at home for much longer than the current crisis. And we found on the whole they were healthier and more content than the people who had just been rushed into working at home because there was a lockdown. The early evidence is that for many people working from home, it has caused some problems, but they’re not insurmountable ones, and they can settle down over time.

An area that may need some further discussion is vocational rehabilitation. There’s a question mark over whether we’ve really thought enough about – once this crisis is over – whether we’ve got a flexible enough model of rehabilitation to help people back to work, particularly after long periods of sickness absence. If you’re not welcoming them back into a workplace or if they’re working predominantly at home, that can be tricky. I have had experience of this because I spent the 18 months up to last summer undergoing cancer treatment.

Most employers will be starting to think about what a large-scale return to work will look like. It’s not just about logistics or the technicalities of furloughing and how you bring that to an end, and so on. Because even if people aren’t actually ill or don’t have an injury, the elevated risk of them failing to adjust effectively to returning to work is something that occupational health needs to be on the lookout for. Otherwise, you could end up with people having several failed attempts at coming back to work, which might cause them more distress than necessary. 

“This crisis could put occupational health centre forward”

Professor Anne Harriss, president of the Society of Occupational Medicine

If you’d said to me in November last year that in April this was how we would be working, I’d have thought you’d been reading too many science fiction magazines. This public health crisis is unprecedented, but it provides a really good opportunity to improve awareness of the effect of work on health and health on work – workplace wellbeing, mental health, ergonomics and legislative requirements.

Under section two of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have a responsibility to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees. In the current crisis, I think the Health and Safety Executive will be the last people to pull businesses up for not having conducted risk assessments for home workers. However, if more people work from home in the future, that’s something we need to think about. You’ve got to do a risk assessment for your workstations, and you’re not going to send someone round to everyone’s house, so how are you going to do it? One way is to have a system where before an employee can log on to their computer, they have to go through a mini risk assessment where they look at the position of the screen and keyboard etc. Or it could be done via an online survey. 

Employers will also need to think about whether, if workers are required to work from home on a laptop, they’ve got to provide that work equipment, as well as what laptops are going to be used. Laptops by themselves are not ideal for extensive working in the long term as you can’t position the keyboard separately from the screen – although laptop stands with separate keyboards can be used to improve workstation ergonomics.

Mental health is also a serious health consideration. If you’re expecting people to work at home in the same way they do at work, when they have all these other distractions, then I think you’re on a hiding to nothing. But if both parties can be flexible, then you’ve cracked it.

If this had happened 15 years ago, we wouldn’t have had the technology to support these new ways of working. It’s really shown the benefit of having a good occupational health service to support businesses to get the best out of their workforces.

“Even greater emphasis will be put on protecting those with underlying health conditions”

Diane Gilhooley, global head of employment, labour and pensions at Eversheds Sutherland

With government statistics suggesting as many as 45 per cent of employees have been working remotely during the lockdown period, we anticipate an increasing number of requests for home working once workplaces reopen, particularly where employees have been working in this way successfully over many weeks.

A positive outcome of the crisis may well be a move away from the expectation that most workers should be office-based to perform their role. The explosion of online meetings will have employers and workers questioning whether the environmental impact, time and cost of travel to meetings is really necessary, and whether there is now an opportunity to make a more permanent change.

Health and safety obligations may also start to be interpreted differently now, with even greater emphasis on protecting those with underlying health conditions from risk, by home working or other measures. 

Government guidance on these issues will be key, and employers need clear health guidelines on updated symptoms, whether a broader group should now be classified as vulnerable, isolation requirements, return to work post virus, restrictions on travelling to and from the UK and more.


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