If supporting employees’ mental health was a low priority for some employers pre-pandemic, then the disruption of the past 15 months may bring about the sort of change health and safety professionals have been advocating for years.
That is the view of Benjamin Legg, global health, safety and wellbeing director at infrastructure giant Ferrovial, who believes the pandemic has reminded organisations of the value of their people.
'It has humanised business,' says Ben. 'Organisations have often avoided or forgotten about health, including mental health, but the pandemic has shone a spotlight on health and wellbeing. Health, wellbeing and safety belong in the same basket: they are all linked.'
For Ferrovial, like so many other businesses, the pandemic has meant new ways of working, greater reliance on technology, and a demand for creativity and innovation in the planning of work to get the job done while keeping colleagues safe (in every sense of the word).
But Ben refuses to see these necessary changes in the negative; nor does he believe that the disruption caused by the pandemic provides an excuse for not maintaining honest and open communication with colleagues – something that is so important for mental wellbeing at work.
'I always try to be positive and look for a silver lining. Despite the circumstances of the past year, which have been terrible for so many people, we actually have more opportunities to have great conversations and engage, even though they might be on Zoom or Teams.
'The pandemic has made us more technologically aware, it’s broken down barriers and, most importantly, it’s reinforced our basic human need to feel safe – not the hard-hat-and-boots type of safe, but rather an environment that’s safe for us physically and mentally.'
Home and away
With an 80,000 strong workforce around the world, Ferrovial places emphasis on agility when it comes to communicating about health, safety and wellbeing with colleagues.
Pre-pandemic, the organisation’s health, safety and wellbeing programme, HASAVI, relied a little more on face-to-face communication. When the pandemic hit and office workers became home workers, 'We took HASAVI and evolved it in quick time,' explains Ben, 'by adopting technology to make it work better for our colleagues remotely.
'We created an Instagram page and a YouTube channel: everything went online so that people could interact when they wanted, and how they wanted, from home. We used technology to remove friction and to challenge misinformation, which was very prevalent early on in the pandemic.'
While technology enabled Ben to care for home workers, protecting the health and wellbeing of colleagues in construction environments was a different challenge. Many were classed as critical workers and were allowed to carry on working through lockdowns, so the question for Ben was how the business could plan work differently to mitigate the risks of the virus while ensuring it supported workers’ mental wellbeing.
'We were very clear – from the group CEO down to project managers on site – that we wanted people to tell us about the challenges they were facing; we wanted to have those conversations. It wasn’t about social distancing on site; it was about physical distancing. So we planned different work schedules to mitigate the virus risk, but we still had daily briefings, for example. Everything was geared towards de-stressing the environment and providing the facts, to enable everyone to make rational choices.'
Efforts to support colleagues didn’t stop when people left site or switched off their laptops, though. Recognising that the pandemic was affecting families, particularly with school closures, Ferrovial provided resources such as guidance for children on managing stress, and online yoga, HIIT and pilates sessions.
'Even in the midst of a pandemic, it created an opportunity for fun,' says Ben. 'The pandemic affected everyone, but it created a new form of collaboration: it broke down barriers because we were able to demonstrate a high level of care in different ways.'
Jog, not sprint
The coming months offer the certainty of further uncertainty as countries navigate the next stage of the pandemic. But, argues Ben, there is an opportunity for organisations to create something positive from adversity by focusing on people.
It’s long been recognised that the construction industry has a problem with mental health. Workers are more likely to suffer stress, depression or anxiety than a musculoskeletal disorder, and the suicide rate among construction workers is three times the national average for men and higher than in any other sector. Every day, more than one construction worker in the UK is lost to suicide.
'Construction is a very transient, very nomadic industry,' says Ben. 'Working away from home, you lose your network of support and you can lose your sense of belonging. When you’re living away, you don’t get to go home at the end of the day to family and friends.
'It’s very demanding work; very high pressure. And the amazing teams operating on sites are often self-employed or working for small businesses that operate more hand-to-mouth.'
But there are lessons to take from the pandemic, says Ben: some of the changes made through necessity over the past year provide the foundations for better management of health, wellbeing and safety in the future.
'The pandemic has asked questions of society and of businesses,' he reflects, 'and most have embraced the challenge'.
At Ferrovial, there are plans to turn HASAVI into an app and to accelerate how the firm digitalises processes. The business will use technology to create global communities – but, says Ben, it will be 'selective about technology and intelligent about adoption.'
More broadly, 'There will be a focus on work-life balance and ways of working that suit people better, and an emphasis on open communication to help create a more trusting environment in which to work.'
For Ben personally, the coming months present opportunities as well as challenges. He is looking forward to continuing his work with the IOSH Business Leaders group, which sees IOSH collaborate with business professionals who are leading the way on health and safety in their industries.
The group provides a forum for the exchange of ideas and innovations to help shape IOSH strategy and campaigns – looking, for example, at 'how to put people front and centre of sustainability,' says Ben, with the ultimate vision of encouraging investors to see health and safety not as running in parallel to business, but as integral to its success.
While the outlook is positive, though, Ben does sound a note of caution. 'At Ferrovial, we want to make sure we take everyone with us,' he stresses.
'As we emerge from the pandemic, there is a great deal of anxiety. We don’t want anyone feeling left behind, so we have to plan how we come out of this.
'There will be no sprint finish: it’s a persistent, energetic jog.'