Guest blog by Gail Henderson, HR Consultant
Occupational Health (OH) and Human Resource (HR) practitioners share a common goal of creating an open, honest and high performing workplace, where employee’s health and wellbeing are valued, not just in terms of productivity and return on investment, but also in terms of how employees think and feel about their job and organisation.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK Government has confirmed that those who can work from home should continue to do so for as long as possible but also state that if people are unable to work from home, they should be encouraged to return to work whilst following the health and social distancing guidelines. Additionally, the UK Government has also published its COVID-19 recovery strategy which sets out its central aim of building ‘COVID secure’ workplaces for the immediate future.
As OH and HR professionals, we are in a unique position to take a leading role in supporting the Government’s core principles of building a stronger economy that ensures the development of a more resilient and inclusive organisational culture. Collectively we need to formulate plans that facilitate workplaces that meet Government guidelines in terms of social distancing, by working with architects and designers to create spaces that work. These plans are likely to reduce the numbers of staff within workplaces and therefore, in tandem, we need to review and consider those members of staff who will work remotely as their needs are materially different.
One of the outcomes that has arisen from this pandemic is the rapid shift away from siloed thinking towards nonlinear styles of management that encourage organisations to create space to self-organise, evolve and adapt, encouraging a more flexible approach to managing working time. For example, researchers at Imperial College London have launched a collaborative network to help the global surgical community improve frontline care during the COVID-19 pandemic (PanSurg). The purpose of this platform is to facilitate the delivery of safe and effective care to patients and to help and support staff on the frontline. One of the central aims of this research is to be able to provide insights into targeted interventions to improve staff wellbeing, and provide evidence for strategic workforce planning and organisational change (Staff and Safety Epidemics SSAFE).
The production of joint integrated guidance from OH and HR perspectives can strengthen the support given to employers, and can be used to increase efficiency and productivity, whilst creating an intelligent way of sharing knowledge and information. This synergised approach will not only help employers survive the turbulence of COVID-19, but also protect the health and safety of employees and enable focus on rebuilding the economy.
As an HR consultant, I welcome the joint efforts of OH and HR professionals to focus the drive to making work environments safe for all staff and business users. The Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) recently hosted a webinar “Launch of Return to Work Toolkit” chaired by Dr Will Ponsonby, President of SOM, with contributions from Prof Ewan Macdonald OBE (University of Glasgow), Louise Aston (BITC), Rachel Suff (CIPD), Emma Mamo (Mind) and Saira Arif (ORCHA). A key focus of the presentation was on current and future risks to employee wellbeing and mental health associated with return to work and in particular the aspect of risk assessments needing to be adapted to suit each working environment.
The Returning to the workplace after the COVID-19 lockdown toolkit published by SOM in collaboration with Acas, BITC, CIPD and Mind, provides an excellent detailed guide for organisations, which will help them to shape and manage the challenge of establishing a work re-entry plan. The release of this guide has come at a good time particularly when organisations are now facing the challenge of putting robust risk assessments in place, and must also demonstrate compliance with health and safety legislation.
The SOM toolkit should be read in tandem with the CIPD COVID-19 Return To Work Guide (2020). These documents will be very helpful to organisations, and in particular HR practitioners, where managers will need guidance and support with respect to observing (and evidencing) three key tests before bringing people back into the workplace, i.e. ‘is it essential, is it sufficiently safe and is it mutually agreed’.
Both the SOM toolkit and CIPD guide focus on the increasing benefits of OH and HR collaboration to address the growing concern of mental health in return to work and to identify effective strategies that can be implemented. However, we need to be aware that the pandemic has created a perfect storm of employee relations issues; where rapid organisational change can lead to an increase in workplace conflict. For example, there may be a potential rise in cases of employee grievance and whistleblowing associated with work re-entry, particularly as the evidence of COVID-19 transmission rate is likely to remain high for the foreseeable future.
Equally, as pressures in the workplace increase leading to work overload and burnout, coupled with the demand to adopt new working practices, it is relatively easy to see how these situations can escalate and lead to issues such as harassment and bullying. Organisations will therefore benefit from ongoing guidance and support to embrace a more flexible working environment whilst creating a culture that does not discriminate and can demonstrate a fair and inclusive approach to management of employees.
As organisations prepare to return to a ‘new normal’ the measure of success will be defined by the extent to which leaders of organisations are supported through this transitional phase. Both OH and HR practitioners have the opportunity to build a new platform of collaborative working to help organisations create a culture of trust, through open and transparent communication with their employees. The ability to be able to assess and manage changes to employee attitudes to their work, especially around perceptions of risks and compliance with health and safety legislation can be done through our wealth of expert advice and guidance.
OH and HR practitioners can unite to offer a formidable force through a collaborative process, by:
- assisting organisations with the promotion of shared best practice in the strategic planning, policy development and implementation of return to work practices;
- focusing on current and future risks to employee wellbeing and mental health associated with return to work;
- sharing ideas and research that will support the evolution of new inclusive working cultures post COVID-19; and
- by creating ways to adapt communication strategies and workloads that will support organisations to comply with Health and Safety legislation in order to manage the risk of mental ill-health amongst employees.
If we can create a single unified voice, we can assess and tailor employer’s requirements and formulate a route map that places the employee at the center of an organisation’s thinking, whilst ensuring that efficiencies in operation are maintained.
CIPD – COVID-19: Returning to the workplace
GOV UK – Support for businesses and employers during coronavirus (COVID-19)
GOV UK – Working safely during Coronavirus (COVID-19)
GOV UK – Our plan to rebuild: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy
IOSH – Returning safely post COVID-19 policy position
SOM – Returning to the workplace after the COVID-19 lockdown; toolkits
The National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work, Alliance Manchester Business School
The World Economic Forum COVID Action Platform: How to build back better after COVID-19