15 September 2020

The key pandemic priorities for employers revealed

The pandemic turned our professional lives upside down overnight. Millions of UK workers were expecting the lockdown to last mere days which subsequently turned into weeks then months.

During the virus-induced uncertainty, stress, fear and anxiety about job losses, and juggling work with childcare, has gripped workers across the country.

That’s why, now more than ever, employers must consider both the psychological and physical safety of their people, whether they are working from home or returning to the office.

Social distancing and face coverings in the workplace are as important as checking remote workers’ home-office setups and mental wellbeing.

Not everyone has access to a desk and comfortable office chair as they normally would in their offices. For many staff, especially younger workers, their new routine involves sitting on a bed or sofa, hunched over a small laptop. While not as obvious as being hurt by heavy machinery, issues such as musculoskeletal problems can arise due to bad postures.

The onus is on employers to go the extra mile to ensure staff have a structure to their working day and they feel supported to achieve their goals.

To play its part as a responsible LATCO, at ODS we’ve been coming up with new ways of working amid the crisis. From the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, we told our customers, suppliers, and workforce that while we do not know the extent of the virus’s impact, the number one priority will always be their safety. We published a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) on our website that identified how we deal with a variety of issues caused by the virus, such as reduced workforce, fuel, or material supplies.

The Oxford LATCO has 620 staff and provides key services to the residents of Oxford. During the peak of the pandemic staff who could work at home did so. Where key services, urgent repairs needed to be carried out, refuse collected arrangements were put in place to support staff to be able to work safely.

During this time the ODS Executive team 'met’ twice a day via Zoom: the morning ‘meeting’ being operational - who is doing what, problems arising, how to address them; the afternoon meeting less so and with more of a personal approach, looking out for each other - how we’re doing, what’s going on at home.

ODS recognises that employers must not underestimate the scale of mental health issues workers might be facing. Earlier this month, data from the Office for National Statistics revealed about one in five UK adults were suffering from moderate or severe symptoms of depression. This is almost double the level recorded before COVID-19.

Employers need to have management strategies in place to empower their employees’ careers amid this challenging time.

To ensure had up to date information to keep themselves safe amid the pandemic, ODS launched its ‘Road to Recovery Operational Framework’ two days after the lockdown was announced on March 12th. This document has been regularly updated and underpinned by service risk assessments and service delivery plans to ensure we could keep everyone safe at work.

Our company mission statement is ‘doing good’ and this is also how we actually operate. We’re better placed to help others and work efficiently if we all feel ok, and that sense of care and responsibility percolates throughout the business. This is a cornerstone of our management approach – regular, effective communication, setting high expectations, but also caring for others. And knowing when to take some time out.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Britain's national regulator for workplace health and safety, employers must ensure home-workers are keeping healthy. The HSE advises the development of key steps on how to keep in touch with staff, what tasks are assigned to them and whether they can be done safely. Control measures to protect workers from threats to both physical and mental wellbeing should also be a priority for managers. No problems can be solved without a solid plan of action that is communicated to staff, clients, suppliers, and everyone you do business with.

Our staff have continue to be encouraged to take their leave and have time away from the workplace even though many have cancelled holidays that included travel abroad.

In these unprecedented times, employers must create a safe space so people can speak honestly about how they are feeling without any worry of negative repercussions. Firms should factor in, and appreciate, that each employee is unique and has different circumstances. For example, a 23-year-old employee who lives alone might be feeling lonely working from home while a 40-year-old father of three could be overwhelmed balancing home and work responsibilities. Their managers should be sensitive to both workers’ professional and personal trials and tribulations.

Teamwork is a key motivator for many of our staff, and with good rotas we’ve been able to keep morale high. Where people are working from home, we’re committed to keeping in touch and maintaining motivation with staff quizzes, provision of wellbeing information, and introducing new opportunities for training. A new intranet has also been launched which has made information sharing even easier.

Business owners need to constantly reassure that they are ready to lend a helping hand to workers and be flexible where needed. Steps employers should take should include: sending surveys on how employees are feeling about their workdays, asking them about when they would like to return to the office, and communicating key measures taken to ensure business continuity.

While the post-pandemic future remains uncertain, employers should not drop the ball when it comes to keeping staff mentally and physically safe. After all, your workers are the essential tool in helping you emerge stronger from what has been one of the most challenging years in history.

Martin Shields is head of safety, health & environment at ODS.

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