With the lockdown being further eased and attentions turning to recovery, how could the world of safety look to build from the rebound? James Pomeroy looks at the potential benefits emerging from the pandemic and how OHS practitioners should look to Churchill’s advice and never let a good crisis go to waste.
Whilst the pandemic has caused a torrid time for many, both personally and professionally, there are positives to be had.
The pandemic has shown organisations that the health and wellbeing of employees is not a peripheral consideration, but key to profitability and growth. With participation in physical activity surging through the lockdown, there is a once in a lifetime opportunity to build on this momentum and help employees maintain their newly formed habits.
Research by Sports England found 63% of people used exercise to manage their mental health with home fitness workouts, cycling and walking the most popular methods of exercise. The lockdown has provided many people with a new desire to exercise, with 60% of the population intending to be more active as restrictions are eased. Research has long linked physical exercise with improved mental health, reduced absenteeism and higher levels of employee motivation.
In addition to increasing activity levels, a recent survey by the campaigning charity ASH indicated that over a million people may have quit smoking in Britain during the pandemic. The survey suggested that smokers across all age ranges dropped the habit during lockdown. Employee health promotion campaigns, such as smoking cessation support over the coming months could help employees as they encounter the stressors that often lead to people returning to addictive habits.
A study by the University of Antwerp showed that many people have been eating more healthily during the lockdown, with consumption of fruit and vegetables increasing and ready-made meals declining. This is notable because consumption of salty, fat and sweet products usually increases with increased stress. Workplaces can help sustain the change by improving the support they provide for employee wellness, through on-site facilities and the subsidiaries they offer. This includes ensuring that nutritional food is available at on-site canteens and in vending machines, employees are able to store, heat and consume home-prepared food, and by providing diet, fitness and wellbeing advice.
With many organisations developing return to work programmes and focusing on recovery, employee health and wellbeing programmes need to play a key role. Having made changes in their lifestyles, corporate health wellbeing programmes can significantly help employees maintain their newly found habits. This is good for both employees and the organisations.
Whilst we may not have realised it, many of us have been participating in one of the largest social experiments in history: The Great 2020 work-from-home trial. Digital technologies have generally worked, and organisations of all sizes have discovered that they can function and be productive whilst their employees are remote. Many of the organisations that moved their products and services online are seeing how transformative it can be and for many, there is no going back. At LR, for example, migrating the auditing and inspection of safety-critical assets and systems onto a digital service has proven highly popular with clients, and most will opt to stick with it.
Moving more of the everyday functions and processes that an OHS practitioner undertakes online such as training, auditing, monitoring of critical controls, data collection, and management reporting has many advantages, but requires careful consideration. Online training, for example, requires a very different approach to classroom. Similarly, anyone who has attended an online workshop or seminar will know that it requires a different form of facilitation and engagement to be effective. The lockdown has shown us that many of the things we do in OHS can be done digitally and this trend is here to stay. Many of the progressive OHS teams are taking the opportunity to re-evaluate the way they operate in the post-pandemic world.
For many organisations, their corporate culture will have changed as a result of the pandemic. With lots of employees having to balance their work with childminding and home schooling, employers have had to be flexible in their approach. We’ve all been on team calls where we’ve being joined by the sights and sounds of our colleagues’ children or pets, and therefore managers have been seeing the realities of a flexible working policy. Employees have valued this flexibility and will be reluctant to fully revert, and may even consider moving jobs if there is a wholesale return to the formal ‘9-5’.
While remote working has many advantages, it does however, often bring a longer working day, less segregation of work and home life, and can increase isolation. With many organisations now planning to make permanent changes to their ways of working, this will have long-term implications for the work of OHS practitioners. Increased remote working will not only change the nature of OHS risks, it will also alter the many of the soft elements that bind an organisation’s culture, such as social interaction, informal communication and engagement. OHS practitioners should consider how changes in their organisation’s operating models may impact OHS, particularly the softer elements, such as the human interactions and social capital that makes us effective in our work.
It’s important to remember that many employees whose work is critical to ‘keep the lights on’, have been unable to work from home, and this has also OHS implications. One of the most positive changes to emerge from the lockdown has been a re-discovery of the work that frontline personnel perform, and how dependent we all are on their efforts. Being categorised as a key worker has fostered a sense of solidarity and pride in the service that frontline employees provide, and has reminded many organisations of their social purpose. This provides an opportunity to reconnect with frontline personnel, understand the realities of their work and explore new ways to keep them healthy and safe. I’m aware of several organisations who, on the back of this newfound pride in the work of their frontline workers, are planning ‘back to the floor’ initiatives and new employee engagement programmes. The recovery provides an opportunity for OHS practitioners to learn from the experiences and difficulties of frontline workers, and progress initiatives that improve their safety and well-being of the people at the sharp end.
A bright future?
For many OHS practitioners, the past few months has been a transformative time, seeing unprecedented demand for their expertise and unparalleled levels of engagement by their organisations. Most OHS teams have ‘had a good war’ and the organisations have valued their work. The coming months offers the opportunity to build on the success and recognise the ongoing rebalancing of health vs. safety. At the same time, almost all organisations will be undergoing major change in their services, personnel and ways of working, all of which will change the nature of the OHS risks and ways existing programmes operate. Such change presents risks and opportunities for the OHS profession.