COVID-19 is impacting our workforce and organisations are rightly concerned about their employee’s psychological health and safety. Social isolation and social distancing requirements have seen businesses actively working to safely maintain operations and a productive workforce, and they have responded quickly. However, we don’t know how long these new arrangements will be in place. The uncertainty, ambiguity and radical change are breeding grounds for anxiety, stress and helplessness.
Remote work is becoming the norm for many employees, and this working arrangement can have negative impacts on their psychological health and safety.
A recent research publication provides some insight into the psychological health and safety legal obligations to provide a practical framework for organisations. This article presents the critical concepts and key takeaways to help you to support your employee’s psychological health to maintain social connections, create team cohesion and ensure productivity throughout these testing times. Organisations need to contribute to, and reinforce, a positive state of mental health and ensure the psychological safety of employee’s working remotely.
Duty of Care Obligations
Under Australian health and safety laws, organisations are subject to a primary duty of care that requires them to ensure the health and safety of workers so far as is reasonably practicable. Part of this duty is to provide and maintain safe systems of work and safe working environments. Workers are also required to take reasonable care for their own health and safety and not adversely affect the health and safety of others while at work. The duties apply wherever a worker goes while at work and are not limited to the traditional workplace setting. That means their home office is now considered an extension of your workplace.
Psychological health is now strongly featuring in your health and safety duty of care requirements. Safe Work Australia provides guidance material that places the management of work-related stress within a risk management framework and specific information for industries managing through COVID-19. More than 90% of psychological injuries have been found to be due to stress and much of our daily stress comes from interacting with other people. Bullying and harassment are good examples.
However, new stressors are emerging from the high numbers of employees now working from home. Under these conditions, there is now no longer a clear boundary between work and home and stress is on the rise. How do you reduce your employee’s stress under these new workplace conditions?
See our article, Reporting to Comply With Industrial Manslaughter.
What Are the Key Stressors When Working From Home?
The negative stressors on employees working from home are loneliness and isolation, maintaining connectedness with others, keeping productivity up, and separating work from general home life. There are steps that you can take to support your employee’s psychological health.
- Loneliness and isolation can have negative impacts while working from home, and your employees must pay extra attention to the social aspect of work. They need to be proactive and frequently communicate through chat forums, phone calls, and video conferences.
2. It’s critical that your employees remain connected with others while working from home. A good strategy is to encourage employees to reach out to 3-4 workmates per week, and if they are struggling, they should be made aware of a colleague that they can reach out to and make contact. In addition, your employees should know how to contact your Employee Assistance Provider (EAP) if things get too tough.
3. Your employees must set up a daily routine to structure their workday at home with a set start and finish time to reduce the risk of burnout. They need to dress for the day and get out of their pyjamas. You should encourage your employees to work on a plan and prioritise tasks and tick them off as they complete them. Managers should set clear objectives from the outset and address any issues or concerns early and before they escalate. You also need to provide your employees with the autonomy to get on and get the work done without keeping constant tabs and micro-managing them. A quick daily check-in should be enough together with weekly planning sessions.
4. Having a healthy work-life balance while working from home can be challenging, especially if your employees live with children and are possibly home-schooling them. It is essential to set boundaries with the people that your employees live with because interruptions can interfere with their concentration and performance. They need to let their family know when they are and are not available for conversations. They need to explain how they generally like to work and agree on some ground rules regarding space and noise levels and general expectations. These measures will help to provide support for your employee’s psychological health while they continue to work from home.
5. Look after your leaders and help them to maintain rapport with their teams working from home. It’s important they are careful with what they say to their teams and the tone that they use in their communications. They need to maintain a positive mindset but it’s also important that they acknowledge their own vulnerability in this situation and share with their people what is helping them to get through each day.
See our article, COVID-19: Safely Working From Home.
When Can Working From Home Become Unsafe?
Domestic violence is another issue that organisations will now need to contend with as a consequence of the blurring lines between work and non-work contexts. Those who are vulnerable to family violence are in situations where they are spending a great deal of time at home with the perpetrators. For those in strained situations, going to work helps to create regular separation. Spending many hours together at home is exposing those already in abusive situations to violence that they cannot escape.
In this COVID-19 crisis, we are seeing increases in abuse in vulnerable relationships and a rise in violence levels in already violent homes. Self-isolation is placing domestic violence abusers under additional strain, and this group doesn’t typically have well developed emotional resources or coping skills.
A critical area where business can assist your employee’s psychological health is in training employees on warning signs, support and personal safety.
- Train About Warning Signs: People who experience domestic violence are often more likely to confide in a co-worker. They are generally reluctant to talk to managers of supervisors. One thing a company can do is to train all employees to recognise the warning signs and risk factors for domestic violence.
- Establish a Support Network: Companies can provide support across the business for employees experiencing domestic violence. An effective team which include the employee’s supervisor, trusted co-worker/s, the human resources department, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider and union representatives.
- Encourage At-Risk Employees to Develop a Safety Plan: All employees should ensure their safety at home during COVID-19. It’s a good idea to develop a plan if things go wrong. The Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria has a comprehensive list of actions to include in a safety plan.
See our article, COVID-19 and the Rise in Domestic Violence.
What Happens if We Fail in Our Duty of Care?
It’s pretty safe to say that COVID-19 is increasing the stress levels of everyone in your business because we are all impacted. And as an organisation, we have a duty to manage our employee’s stress and support their psychological health, but what could happen if we ignore this issue and continue our business as usual?
- Health and safety regulators may prosecute organisations and their leaders for criminal offences under health and safety law
- There may be claims for compensation in the context of the health and safety laws’ victimisation provisions
- Workers compensation claims for psychological injury
- Adverse action and general protections claims under the industrial relations regime.
Any of the above may trigger notifications to and investigations by relevant professional industry bodies that may lead to class actions and other actions in tort.
To address the issues of increased stress and the impacts on psychological health, organisations must perform risk assessments, determine control measures and ensure those control measures are working. Training is an essential part of the risk management approach.
See our article, COVID-19: How To Perform a Risk Assessment.
Safely Deliver Mental Health Training Online
It’s time for a re-think of how you manage your employee’s psychological health and meet your duty of care obligations. Training on mental health topics that provide information about what to do and how to increase their resilience is a positive step forward to support your employees in this challenging time.
The Tap into Safety online and mobile-friendly platform has comprehensive mental health training using micro-learning to teach coping strategies and encourage help-seeking. Examples of modules that are helpful in reducing stress and educating on the signs and symptoms of declining mental health include:
- Helping Employees with Mental Health Concerns
- Depressive Thoughts and Alcohol Use
- Working from Home
- Managing Your Employees
- Signs of Declining Mental Health in Employees
- Fear of Job Loss
- Domestic Violence
- Fatigue Management
- Financial Stress
- Gambling Addiction
See our article, Coronavirus: Stop Classroom and Group Training.
Organisations have a clear duty of care, and this extends to psychological health. Where organisations may have been successfully managing their employee’s psychological health in the workplace, COVID-19 has required many employees to move their working environment to their homes. This brings with it some significant implications for organisations. Working from home can lead to loneliness and isolation, difficulties with remaining connected with others, problems with keeping productivity up, and issues with separating work from general home life.
As part of an organisations duty, they need to contribute to, and reinforce, a positive state of mental health and ensure the psychological safety of employee’s working remotely. This article provides some tips to address these stressors including providing regular communication, paying attention to the social side of work, establishing a new working from home routine, ensuring separation from home and work activities, and looking after their leaders.
We don’t know how long we will need to continue in these working from home arrangements. Organisations must be mindful of their duty of care psychological health obligations for their employees or be at risk of prosecution, compensation or class actions in the future.