Health obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 extend to the psychological, as well as physical, health of workers. During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, workers could face heightened anxiety and stress, and persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) have an important role to play in supporting workers and mitigating risk factors that can lead to mental ill-health. SafeWork New South Wales (SafeWork NSW) has created an online resource — ‘COVID-19 and mental health at work’ — to assist PCBUs in continuing to foster mentally healthy workplaces throughout COVID-19.
Many PCBUs have implemented working remotely or working from home arrangements. But such arrangements can also compound feelings of isolation among workers. “There’s no doubt that everyone and every business is impacted in some way by the COVID-19 health crisis,” NSW Minister for Better Regulation Kevin Anderson said. “Things have continued to move quickly and for business this has meant sudden and significant changes to staff working arrangements, and for many businesses, adapting to increased demand or unexpected closure.
“To help businesses and employers navigate this shift, we’ve developed a suite of resources to help to clarify their responsibilities and to outline practical steps they can take to minimise workplace hazards caused by remote working, such as advice on how to set up an ergonomic workspace and ways to promote good mental health,” Anderson said. PCBUs can manage risk factors by staying informed on the current situation through official information sources and by implementing advice available from their state regulator and health authority. In its guidance, SafeWork NSW encourages PCBUs to identify and support workers that may be more at risk of workplace psychological injury (eg, frontline workers or those working from home in isolation).
Measures that PCBUs can adopt to assist workers working from home at this time include consulting on the nature and scope of working from home arrangements and staying connected through regular real-time communication by phone or videoconferencing, instead of relying on text or email communication. It is also suggested that PCBUs create a central point of contact for workers to raise any concerns, and promote an Employee Assistance Program, if available. Additionally, PCBUs should encourage open discussions that enable workers to share or learn from others, and also share support services.
“We have seen great leadership from the business community who are adapting to new and emerging challenges including measures such as implementing new hygiene and cleaning procedures and promoting practical ways to adhere with social distancing instructions, such as working from home,” Anderson said. “For some businesses and employees, a work from home environment represents unchartered waters and can pose a lot of questions about protecting your workforce when they are in an environment you can’t control. That’s why the NSW Government is proactively working to help employers identify and manage new potential hazards. Employers also need to be able to talk to their workers about what work health safety looks like when the workplace is in your home.”
PCBUs are being encouraged to lead change by consulting with workers on how work will be conducted differently, and on how to enable social distancing. PCBUs are also being encouraged to lead by example, by taking care of themselves and implementing the ‘five ways to wellbeing’. Enabling flexibility and good work design may also help workers manage their work, as well as their family and career responsibilities. PCBUs are also being advised to communicate with workers regularly about how the business is addressing COVID-19 and what control measures have been put into place. Workers must also know about the entitlements that can be accessed, particularly if they have caring responsibilities for family members, or if they become unwell themselves. Further, PCBUs must also be aware of workers who are on extended leave or on workers compensation, so that these workers are kept informed and understand the impacts of the situation.
“SafeWork NSW has continued to work closely with mental health and workplace safety experts, such as SIRA, iCare, the Black Dog Institute, WayAhead, RUOK? and Beyond Blue,” Anderson said. “With their support we’ve developed a range of useful resources focused on mental health at work during the COVID-19 pandemic, including free training modules and exercises to help all of NSW’s workplaces be mentally healthy.” The state’s free ‘mental health skills training’ course is a three-part series designed to increase understanding of mental ill-health and help boost wellbeing; the program can be completed online, at a time and pace that suits the trainee.
Many mental health and wellbeing organisations have released their own resources focused on COVID-19, workplace mental health and working from home. The Black Dog Institute’s Associate Professor Jill Newby, for example, has compiled a ‘Working from home checklist’, while Lifeline has developed a tool kit — ‘Working from home — how to maintain our mental health wellbeing’.
PCBUs are being advised to recognise the signs that may indicate that a worker is struggling, by being aware of behaviour and communication changes. R U OK? provides helpful information about how to do this remotely. PCBUs are also being reminded to encourage workers to maintain routine start and finishing times, including breaks and time for physical activity.
There are many other resources that PCBUs can draw on to provide support to workers at this time, and to let them know that they are not alone, a large number of which SafeWork NSW makes reference to in its online resource. These include: ‘Looking after your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak’ (Beyond Blue), ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19) information for Australians’ (Australian Psychological Society) and ‘How to cope with stress related to coronavirus (COVID-19)’ (Headspace).
If you or a worker is displaying signs of mental ill-health and needs help, support services that can be contacted include:
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