Employers must recognise that changes to working patterns in the COVID-19 pandemic have left a legacy of mental health vulnerabilities that need to be proactively addressed, or face a long-term decline in both wellbeing and productivity, a new report from assurance and certification specialist Lloyd’s Register suggests.
Employee wellbeing during a pandemic: global insights for health and safety at work surveyed 5,500 workers across 11 countries on their experience of stress, workload and their employers’ response, looking at the period March to December 2020.
Despite some pay-offs for those working at home in terms of work-life balance, the results showed an overall decline in employee wellbeing during the crisis, linked to increased workloads and lack of support from managers and colleagues.
Overall, 70% of respondents globally reported an increase in their levels of work-related stress; 48.4% had experienced an overall change for the worse since working remotely. The survey found that 32% had to cope with higher workloads due to employee shortages, 22% were working longer hours, and 17% felt more isolated from colleagues.
Meanwhile, employers’ response to the risk profile presented by remote working was patchy: just 23.9% of respondents had received a home office risk assessment, and only 15% reported that their employer had shared resources on employee wellbeing.
To respond, Lloyd’s Register argues that health and safety staff should pivot away from established practices and adopt a ‘forward-thinking’ approach to establish supportive working environments and reset the balance between physical and mental health needs.
Failure to act could pose a longer-term threat, the report said. ‘If not properly managed, there is a clear risk that as new working practices become more embedded, employee wellbeing will face a structural decline.’
It later added: ‘If ignored, companies will find themselves managing significant disruption to their most valuable resources, in what will be an already challenging climate.’
Workers were polled in Australia, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, United Arab Emirates (UAE), the UK and USA, with the survey illuminating vastly different experiences.
Noting this unevenness, James Pomeroy, director of quality, health, safety and environment at Lloyd’s Register, suggested that multinationals operating across borders should avoid a ‘one-size fits all’ approach, and that employee consultation is a valuable tool than can flex to meet different needs.
He added: ‘Training also requires a rethink. As new ways of working become embedded, organisations should consider investment in training on how to work effectively from home – shifting the focus from equipment and environment towards a broader view of work-life balance and employee health.’
With 48.4% reporting a decline in the quality of working life since remote working became established, a worse-than-average experience was reported in Japan (60%) and the Netherlands (58%), while workers in Mexico (40%) and Australia (41%) were more upbeat about the shift.
In other findings, 22% would feel comfortable disclosing a mental health issue to a member of the HR team, while 50% worried that doing so would have a negative impact on their career. This figure rose above the average in the UAE where 59% were worried about the consequences; USA (56%) and Mexico (54%).
Countries that were below the average included the UK (44%), South Korea (41%) and Japan (40%). Across the global sample, 50% thought that their employer placed greater emphasis on physical safety rather than general wellbeing; only 26% thought that the two were given equal weighting.
On a country by country basis, German workers were most confident that employers had their wellbeing at heart, with just 42% saying physical risks took priority.
At the other end of the scale, 64% in the USA and 66% in the UAE thought that physical risks were dominant for their employers.
Following the findings of the report, Lloyd’s Register suggests that health and safety professionals should de-emphasise some of the established tools in their repertoire, such as tracking accident, sickness or absence data.
Instead, health and safety professionals should focus on surveys, discussion forums and sentiment analysis tools as indicators of workplace health.
James said: ‘Occupational health and safety guidance and process must also evolve to reflect the experience of today’s employees. Less reliance on outcome data like accident and attendance and more focus on perception and experience could be one solution.
‘Effective feedback will deliver the data and insight required, so that company policies better align with the needs of employees in a post-pandemic working environment.’
Asked for more details, a Lloyd’s Register spokesperson told IOSH magazine: ‘Objective metrics are important, but they are not enough for the challenges for managing OHS in the modern world of work. It is also necessary to consider worker perceptions and experiences, which are more subjective and can be tailored to each organisation.
‘As OHS professionals become more involved in wellbeing and health, using surveys, discussion forums and sentiment analysis tools will become more important - listening to workers’ experiences so the “voice of the employee” can be heard.’
Other tools could be the management standard ISO 45001, which the document said ‘provides a foundation to address some of the problems outlined in this report’.
Meanwhile, guidance standard ISO/PAS 45003, on supporting psychological wellbeing at work, should also be considered, the report suggests. The new standard is due to be published in the third quarter of 2020, with August pencilled in.
It addresses various factors that impact on stress and wellbeing, including clarity of roles, job demands, workload and work pace, change management and job security, and social factors, such as team and organisational culture; recognition and reward; support; work-life balance; and bullying.
Organisations can also freely access ISO/PAS 45005 for guidelines on safe working during the pandemic.
Martin Cottam, group technical assurance and quality director at Lloyd’s Register and chair of ISO Technical Committee 283 on occupational health and safety management said: ‘ISO 45001 provides a strong framework to help organisations review the effectiveness of their occupational health and safety management and prioritise improvements, with ISO/FDIS 45003, and ISO/PAS 45005, providing detailed supporting guidance.’
The report found that workers in the USA, Mexico and UAE are most likely to feel that employers emphasised physical risks, are most likely to report stress and least confident about disclosing a mental health condition; Lloyd’s Register linked this to prevailing levels of employment protection.
The spokesperson noted ‘how employment practices and protections, such as sick pay and “employment at will” shape an organisations’ response and people’s behaviour and … how OHS is impacted by employment law and practices.
‘If workers have limited or no sick pay and employment protections, the psychological safety net that enables workers to disclose and discuss conditions isn’t present.’
They also identified different depths to the historic stigma associated with mental health issues, stating that ‘where debate is less well established and less visible, we would expect workers to feel less confident speaking out’.
The report is available to download here.