How COVID has changed work health and safety

Lockdown shone a spotlight on different ways of working, in particular remote working, and the work health and safety issues associated with it. Companies had to think about how to provide better support to their employees and it was a real impetus to reexamine safety at work from a new perspective. Moving forward there is still a lot that needs to be done to ensure employees remain safe at work, wherever that is. 

These issues had always existed, work health and safety duties, obligations and rights did not change, but what had been an exception in the past became a norm. Different volumes meant different management to ensure controls were effective.

Due to the lockdowns and remote working associated with it, there was a shift in focus from most attention on physical health matters towards more attention to mental health.

Due to the lockdowns and remote working associated with it, there was a shift in focus from most attention on physical health matters towards more attention to mental health. I was very encouraged to see many companies identify what issues were affecting their people by using pulse surveys on a regular basis. Shorter and more frequent engagement surveys gave them a quick measure on the workforce and allowed the organisation to focus on actions and controls that could support  behaviours aimed at supporting good mental health.

Most people working in large corporates have access to an employee assistance provider (EAP) and the usage of these went up. Mental health first aiders also became more commonplace. 

Many companies also supported mental health with online training modules for both front line supervisors and at an individual level. Managers aren’t trained psychologists and having responsibility for understanding and addressing mental health concerns can be very uncomfortable, so training was designed to support them understand their role. For individual team members, training helped them support their own mental health and wellness and understand how to ask for help.

Companies also sought to address mental health issues associated with isolation through social events. Many service providers rushed to market to fill gaps here and find new ways for stakeholder management and connection that all support mental health. This trend will no doubt continue as working remotely and flexibility become more commonplace and part of business as usual.

Working from home is a trend that cannot be easily unwound and there are many reasons why it should be retained. We need to look at how we can advance and enable workplace flexibility into the future to address the very different requirements of working this way. Our homes will be different.  People need rooms that they can repurpose as private studies, stable internet access and access to the right tools. Home builders are already talking about the new demands they are responding to.  

Sadly, there is also a need to recognise that domestic violence remains a part of daily experience for too many Australians. For some people working from home is not particularly safe because home is not a personally safe space. This is a sensitive topic so a company culture that allows difficult matters to be raised is a must.

Traditional enterprise agreements with standard working hours don’t easily accommodate flexible working or working from home. It’s easy to imagine parents wanting to spend a few hours early in the morning working, then get their kids ready for school and then return to work. Workplaces should challenge themselves to facilitate within operational needs. 

The best answers to this conundrum of balancing work and family I’ve seen is when decisions about the operating model are pushed as far down the organisation as possible. If a team leader is responsible for deciding how workplace flexibility will occur that seems to come up with the best answer. They have the best understanding of how the work is done and what the implications are. For example, they know if everyone needs to be in the office on Mondays because they have work coming in from customers making decisions over the weekend. Some companies might allow people to work from home a few days a week while others may not. It will differ, but generally the most effective working models are those being determined by team leaders. 

While the focus of work health and safety has changed quickly over the past 12 months, there is still much that needs to be done to support more new ways of working. We need to enable people to work even more flexibly and make sure that all people continue to be safe as their work environment evolves. 

Get an unfair advantage, subscribe to the free monthly update

The best of The Resolution, delivered to your inbox every month