As mentioned last week, one of the seven causes of operational risk losses is occupational health and safety. In manufacturing industries, this is a key issue that calls for regular monitoring. The covid pandemic has caused concern to this risk in all industries. Just as under normal working conditions, the identification and assessment of risks in both physical and psychosocial working environments is the starting point for managing occupational safety and health (OSH) under COVID-19 measures. Employers are obliged to revise their risk assessment when there is a change to the work process and to consider all risks, including those affecting mental health. People are the backbone of your organization. You can have a clever business strategy, a differentiated product and spiffy, new technology, but without a dedicated team, your dreams will remain dreams.
Last week, we looked at bereavement in the workplace especially in this covid pandemic era. Members of staff who have been bereaved need special attention. A few recommendations were made on how to use soft skills to handle the situation.
Staff resuming work after covid treatment
When an employee returns to work following covid treatment, it is common for the manager to meet with the individual and to go over the work missed. In this initial meeting, managers may consider creating an open discussion that allows the employee to discuss anything about the recent experience. It is important to note that for some employees, duties at work can provide structure and normalcy that promotes healing and acceptance in the grieving process. The workplace may provide a time to set aside the emotions and struggles of coping with the loss.
However, it is also important to recognize that the work environment may be stressful for the employee and returning to work may be overwhelming and too much to handle. This is a difficult process to manage and delicate situation for all involved. Although balancing the company interests with the employees are critical, it may be necessary to shift the job responsibilities of the employee for a brief time period. A temporary schedule adjustment of fewer hours may be needed.
At this point in time, it is also helpful to remind the employee about any company programs that are available to support workers during the time of loss. Remember that grieving is a process that may impact the employee for several weeks or months.
Issues to take note:
- Workers who are returning to the workplace after a period of isolation, whether as an individual measure or as part of a collective isolation, are likely to have worries, particularly about the risk of infection. These worries – especially if there have been changes to the job – may well result in stress and mental health problems.
- Workers might be worried about an increased chance of infection at the workplace and may not want to return. It is important to understand their concerns, provide information about the measures taken and the support available to them.
- Do not underestimate the risk of workers feeling isolated and under pressure, which in the absence of support can lead to mental health problems. Effective communication and support from the manager and colleagues and being able to maintain informal contact with colleagues is important. Consider having regular staff or team meetings held online or rotate which employees can be present at the workplace.
- Consider putting in place support for workers who may be suffering from anxiety or stress. This could range from managers asking workers more often how they are, facilitating exchanges or buddying between colleagues, changes in work organisation and work tasks, to an employee-assistance programme or coaching service, as well as offering contact with an occupational health service. Be aware that workers may have gone through traumatic events.
- Ensure that there is good communication at all levels that includes those working from home. This ranges from the strategic information provided by top-level management to line managers’ duties, without forgetting the importance of routine social interaction among colleagues. While the former can be addressed in scheduled online meetings, the latter can be encouraged through online chats or ‘virtual coffee’ meetings.
Assist workers in setting healthy boundaries between work and free time by communicating clearly when they are expected to be working and available.
The need for All Hands on Deck
The manager cannot do all this alone. This is the time to involve all staff. The participation of workers and their representatives in Occupational Safety and Health, (OSH) is a key to success and a legal obligation. This applies also to measures undertaken at workplaces in relation to COVID-19, a time when events develop quickly, with a high level of uncertainty and anxiety among workers and the population at large.
It is important that you consult your workers and/or their representatives and the health and safety representatives early on about planned changes and how temporary processes will work in practice. Engaging with your workers in assessing risks and developing responses is an important part of good health and safety practice. Health and safety representatives and health and safety committees are in a unique position to help design preventive measures and to ensure that they are implemented successfully.
Consider also how to ensure that outsourced staff and contractors have access to the same information as direct employees.
Special consideration for staff resuming after covid treatment
Occupational physicians and health services are best placed to advise on how to take care of workers who have been ill and on any adaptations that may need to be made in their work. If you do not have an occupational health service, it is important to address these issues with sensitivity and to respect workers’ privacy and confidentiality. Please beware of the risk that workers who have been ill with COVID-19 may suffer stigma and discrimination.
Persons who have become seriously ill may require special consideration even after being declared fit for work. There are some indications that coronavirus patients may suffer from reduced lung capacity following a bout of the disease. Workers in this situation may need their work to be adapted and may need time off to undergo physiotherapy. Workers who have had to spend time in intensive care (IC) may face specific challenges. The worker’s doctor and the occupational health service, if available, should advise on the manner and timing of their return to work. The WHO summary of the following should be taken seriously:
- “Muscle weakness. This is more serious the longer someone has been in IC. The reduced muscle capacity also manifests itself, for example, in respiratory complaints. Another common but less frequently recognised phenomenon is Post Intensive Care Syndrome (PICS). This happens to an estimated 30 to 50% of people admitted to IC and is comparable to a post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Problems with memory and concentration. These complaints often only develop over time. Once someone has started working, this is not always recognised. The symptoms visible at work are memory and concentration problems, difficulty performing the tasks satisfactorily and poorer problem solving skills. It is therefore important to be alert to this if you know that someone has been in IC. Good guidance is very important, because it is difficult for some workers to return to their previous level of performance.
- Long time for resuming work. Data show that a quarter to a third of those who are in IC can develop problems, independent of their age. Approximately half of patients need a year to resume work and up to a third may never return.”
Telecommuting may have proven to work well during the pandemic for some employers and employees. This was initially supposed to be for a short term. However, this emergency tool is growing into another normalcy at work and a cost-savings measure needs to be considered.
Actions to consider include:
- Continuing to allow remote work where possible to keep employees safe.
- Staggering weeks in office and at home among team members, or part-time remote work on alternate weekdays.
- Responding to employee requests to continue to work from home, including long-term arrangements.
- Updating technology to support virtual workers.
- Consider the long-term cost savings or impact of offering permanent remote work.
After all, much of the success of your business relies on the talented people in your team. If you take care of them and meet their emotional needs, everything else will follow.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alberta Quarcoopome is a Fellow of the Institute of Bankers, and CEO of ALKAN Business Consult Ltd. She is the Author of two books: “The 21st Century Bank Teller: A Strategic Partner” and “My Front Desk Experience: A Young Banker’s Story”. She uses her experience and practical case studies, training young bankers in operational risk management, sales, customer service, banking operations ethics and fraud.