Since the onset of COVID-19, our thinking around health, employment and delivery of public services has significantly shifted. The health and wellbeing of employees has become a core part of business operations and a vital consideration that each employer must prioritise in a challenging environment.
For many businesses, particularly small and medium sized businesses, occupational health support and mental wellbeing initiatives played a relatively small role before the pandemic.
Most SMEs didn’t have access to any support at all, something the Government has been looking to address in recent years. While mental health has increased in profile among employers, there remains a taboo and accessing support can be challenging.
What nobody could account for, however, was the global shock brought about by the rapid spread of a deadly virus. COVID-19 has placed employees under acute pressure and put workplace health approaches to the test. A test that is only going to intensify.
But as COVID-19 endures in the autumn and winter, those of us working in health and wellbeing know now is not the time to become complacent. The second wave is bringing new challenges that we must be ready to tackle head on with new thinking and innovation.
One place we can find inspiration from is the NHS. During the height of the crisis, I, like so many other of my colleagues, decided to help the NHS by volunteering at my local NHS trust.
My role whilst volunteering was to support the occupational health of doctors and nurses working in the hospital. I worked first-hand helping healthcare professionals working on COVID wards assess and mitigate their risk.
What I discovered when I arrived was a strong sense of purpose and togetherness despite the situation they were in and pressure they were under. The staff were fully aware of the risks they were taking when looking after the seriously ill, but they continued to deliver world-class service doing all they could to save lives.
Working with these doctors and nurses on the frontline was an inspiring experience.
From a business perspective, it reinforced the need for businesses to play their part and prevent the spread of the virus. It also showed how critical services can adapt and mitigate risk, even during the most challenging and atypical times. To this end, there are a couple of key learnings from my time with the NHS that can and should be taken forward in our businesses.
A first lesson for businesses is to plan their health and wellbeing programmes and COVID responses for the future. The hierarchy of control method can help here. Each measure used to limit the risk of the virus can be listed in an order of importance: elimination, substitution, segregation, engineering controls, administrative controls, and the provision of protective equipment. Employing methods in this order is critical in ensuring they are as effective as possible. Any response can only be sustainable if the foundations of a safe workplace are adopted – PPE is important, but should be the final consideration rather than the first.
It has been hard for many of us to adapt to this new way of life and the nature of the pandemic can present many health, and particularly mental health, challenges. Yet we are potentially going to be going in and out of lockdowns with restrictions being lifted and reintroduced for many months to come. When added to worries about health, finances and job security, this creates an unstable and unpredictable environment which is likely to take its toll on even the most resilient in our workforce. We need to make sure businesses support employees for any fallout in the coming months.
A second lesson is that clear and informative communication is key from the outset. This is critical to create a culture of safety where employees comply with restrictions, and to ensure employees understand the support that is on offer to them and how they can access these programmes.
Without such communication, problems could occur, such as an increased chance of COVID-19 transmission in the workplace or employees feeling like their employers’ care little about their physical and mental wellbeing and becoming disengaged.
Another effective lesson businesses can take from clinicians is to protect their colleagues by assessing the ‘COVID-age’ of their workforce.
COVID-age reflects risk factors such as age, sex, ethnicity and certain health conditions. Each factor adds or subtracts years from an individual’s actual age. Whilst in the NHS, I was able to reassure a healthy, 40-year-old nurse that her COVID risk was the equivalent of a 32-year-old. And I sadly had to warn a diabetic consultant aged 50 that his COVID-age was closer to 60.
For employers, a single measure of vulnerability gives the ability to control virus exposure where practicable, acknowledging that some workers will be more vulnerable should they be infected.
The information this provides businesses is crucial for planning and understanding vulnerabilities to the virus at an individual level. This makes shielding those most in danger of serious infection easier and lets businesses implement personalised risk mitigation measures. It allows risk to be analysed in a more systematic and consistent way.
Building a web of support
Equally important is how employers manage the anxiety of staff and mental health impact of COVID-19.
Just as NHS staff were worried, many employees will be naturally anxious about their working and travelling conditions after months of caution.
Every business will need to adapt their wellbeing strategies as needs change over the coming months. This means more conversations around mental health, resilience and coping with change. Managers must be equipped to have meaningful conversations with employees and be alert to signs of poor mental health or increased stress and anxiety.
Rapid staff wellbeing surveys will give leaders the insight required to understand their workforce’s needs, ensuring a flexible response. Mental Health First Aiders amongst your staff can help reassure colleagues and identify risks.
There’s a long-term factor here as well, even if a vaccine is rolled out soon. ‘Long-COVID’ is still a relatively unknown side effect which could impact workforces for months and years to come.
Just as the NHS doctors and nurses I worked with bravely adapted to every hurdle placed in their way by COVID-19, it’s our responsibility to do the same and protect people from this virus.
Our goal should be to emulate the amazing staff in our NHS to make sure we play our part in preventing an unsustainable peak whilst also helping to manage any mental health challenges that arise as a result of this tough period.
If the response so far by the majority of the business community is anything to go by, I have every faith we’ll get there.
About the author
Dr Paul Williams is Division President at Maximus UK. Dr Williams is the former President of the Society of Occupational Medicine and member of the Royal College of General Practitioners. In his current role as Division President, Dr Williams leads a workforce of almost 4,000 colleagues to deliver vital work, health and employment related services that help more than 2 million people each year. During the pandemic, Maximus UK has been advising some the UK’s largest businesses on health and wellbeing including national supermarkets.