Keeping isolated and remote workers safe during COVID-19

Working from home and the associated isolation should be very real concerns for all businesses that continue to operate in the ‘new normal’ of COVID-19.  A work/home balance is easier to maintain when work is separated from home.  Coming home ordinarily means leaving work behind until the next day, but when you walk from your bedroom into a home office, the lines can become blurred.

Productivity is one thing that may drop off, but modern systems of contact via online messaging, tracking work undertaken with online document management  systems, and video conferencing, will help a business to keep in contact and keep work flowing and track that work is being performed efficiently.  That part is manageable.

But how do you make sure an employee is mentally safe?  It is a requirement under Work, Health and Safety laws to look after psychological as well as physical health.  When people are working remotely, this will be a harder task.

The current circumstances we are under can already be very stressful for employees working remotely.  It may be a relief not to have a daily commute, but now we cannot drop into our local café and read the paper whilst grabbing a coffee, for example. 

How do we get those little moments of self-reflection and personal time and space?  There is a need to encourage employees to follow a regular routine each day, including having normal work breaks.  So, requiring employees to have a start time, take a morning tea break, a lunch break, and an end time to the work day, can be crucial.

What is a psychological hazard?

“A psychosocial hazard is anything in the design or management of work that causes stress. Stress is the reaction a person has when they perceive the demands of their work exceeds their ability or resources to cope. Work-related stress if prolonged and/or severe can cause both psychological and physical injury. Stress itself does not constitute an injury.” (Safe Work Australia)

What are the possible psychosocial hazards from COVID-19?

Psychosocial hazards arising from COVID-19 could include:

  • Exposure to customer violence or aggression – for example in healthcare or supermarkets.
  • Increased work demand – for example, supermarket home delivery drivers.
  • Isolated work – for example, where workers are working from home.
  • Low support – for example, workers working in isolation may feel they don’t have the normal support they receive to do their jobs, or where work demands have dramatically increased, supervisors may not be able to offer the same level of support.
  • Reduced engagement with work colleagues – since they are working in isolation, the usual daily engagement with other colleagues can be reduced to zero.
  • Poor environmental conditions – for example, where temporary workplaces may be hot, cold or noisy.
  • Poor organisational change management – for example, if businesses are restructuring to address the effects of COVID-19 but are not providing information or support to workers.” (Safe Work Australia) 

Employees that exercise at a gym or a pool cannot do so at this time so it is a good idea to allow employees time for exercise, and perhaps during the course of the work day. 

Obviously, they have more time without the commute, but with winter coming it is dark in the morning and there is less time for external activities after work as the light fades, and maybe it is risky to be out at night. 

It makes sense to allow extra breaks in the day for regular exercise, walks and going for a run or bicycle riding.  If your workplace allows only a 30 minute break for lunch, consider extending this period at this time so employees have an hour to fit in some exercise. 

At ER Strategies, we have been having regular meetings, provide online support and have even introduced Desk Yoga and stretching exercise routines during our daily online catch ups.

Working from home risks

At home there are work-related risks that will include the actual physical work arrangements from an ergonomic point of view, so check in with employees about their actual work situation.  Providing relevant equipment to employees makes sense (keyboards, extra monitors, chairs, etc.).  Some monetary allowance to set up an office might be needed.  There is also an overarching legislative obligation to consult with employees when instigating changes, such as working from home arrangements.

As well as work related hazards, there are also other factors to consider, such as having to care for children, relationship strains and potential domestic violence.

Click here for General WHS information in relation to working from home.

Tips for managing stress from COVID-19

1- Provide employees with a regular routine – a work start time, a time to take a morning tea break, a lunch break and an end time to the work day

2- Regularly (at least daily) ask your workers how they are going and if it appears necessary, if there is anything stressing them out.

3- Be well informed with information from official sources, regularly communicate with workers and share relevant information as it comes to hand (i.e. via tele/video conference call).

4- Consult your workers on any risks to their psychological health and how these can be managed.

5- Provide workers with a point of contact to discuss their concerns and to find workplace information in a central place.

6- Provide opportunities for employees to exercise regular exercise, walks and going for a run or bicycle riding, online yoga, stretching exercises, etc.

7- Inform workers about their entitlements if they become unfit for work or have caring responsibilities.

8- Proactively support workers whom you identify may be more at risk of workplace psychological injury (e.g. frontline workers or those working from home), and

9- Refer workers to appropriate channels to support workplace mental health and wellbeing, such as employee assistance programs. (Extracts sourced from Safe Work Australia)

Click here for information on dealing with mental health issues and COVID-19.

Click here for the SafeWork Australia guide on psychological health and safety – helpful guidance material. 

ER Strategies Work Health and Safety Service

ER Strategies’ WHS service can help your business set up a management system for Work Health and Safety, to help you identify your hazards, assess and control the risks.  The risk of psychological injury is real and it is crucial for all businesses to do all that is reasonably practicable to minimise this risk.  ER Strategies’ WHS service aims to assist clients to meet this obligation and avoid or minimise potential workers compensation claims.

Working from home unsupervised is a challenge for any business.  Obligations under WHS laws include to have communication strategies suitable to meet the needs of employees and for the employer to minimise the risk.  So, each business should develop a policy and system to deal with remote work and the isolation employees will experience due to COVID-19.

Contact our team on 1300 55 66 37 or email info@erstrategies.com.au to discuss this service option for your business.

Any queries about the issues in this article or do you need help with other employee relations issues? Contact us on 1300 55 66 37.

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