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Protecting minds as well as bodies

Martin Shields, Head of Safety, Health and Environment at ODS, talks about tackling pandemic challenges head on and caring for the wellbeing of frontline workers.

With mental health a major issue this year, now is time for employers to ramp up communication with their teams and engender a unified front. Not doing so could lead to illness, absence and low morale sapping the energy of organisations in the months to come.

Anxiety, depression and other mental health problems are reportedly on the rise due to general fears and the unprecedented working conditions caused by COVID-19.[1] YouGov research has found that half of key workers have experienced anxiety as a result of their work during the coronavirus crisis. Over a third (37%) admitted to chronic sleeping problems.  A quarter ‘feel hopeless’.[2]

The construction industry alone has faced a myriad of mental health issues during the pandemic and as workers return to on-site jobs post lockdown. There remains great hesitation to take public transport, as well as to work closely with others on projects that leave little space for social distancing. It’s vital that employers think of ways to care for their teams’ physical and mental wellbeing and help make their return to work as smooth a process as possible.

Not all key workers have been applauded

While NHS staff, teachers and bus drivers have rightly gained national sympathy for their efforts at the frontline, other key workers  such as construction professionals, building maintenance operatives and other outdoor personnel like refuse collectors and street cleaners, have largely continued to operate without much fanfare. However, these employees play a vital role in keeping our towns and cities clean, safe and functional.

What can be done to bolster resilience in these essential teams and to reassure individuals that their day-to-day work is both safe and appreciated by their employers and the local people they serve? It’s crucial that the new challenges sparked by the pandemic are tackled head on and that new innovations are made which could lead to higher levels of employee engagement in the long term.

Looking after the people that matter

The guidance that’s come through from the government and trade bodies has often focused tightly on resource management and universal rules on COVID safety measures. Actually taking care of your people, treating them as individuals and communicating clearly and empathetically is now urgently required.

We’ve learnt that offering bespoke guidance per team which is carefully communicated through dedicated managers is vital if construction professionals are to feel reassured about health and safety today. Communication must be ongoing and achievements recognised and applauded at this difficult time.

This is particularly the case for people who are returning from work after a period of shielding. They are experiencing high levels of anxiety both about their own health and that of their families. Some workers may visit multiple homes in a day, or work in teams where travel in a vehicle cab or packed train means social distancing is impossible.

Tailor guidelines and don’t stop communicating

Our big learning is that teams have benefited from having bespoke guidelines and toolkits to carry out their unique day-to-day activities. This involves working in ‘bubbles’, having staggered start times and breaks away from other colleagues, and being regularly updated on the PPE equipment they need and the safety measures they must take.

At ODS, we also take care to overcome language barriers where workers may not speak English as a first language. We offer support to those who have pressing concerns and check in that everyone is happy with the guidance provided, asking what could be done better or where they think problems are arising.

We know that things don’t always go to plan, so we have bespoke weekly assessments in place where our managers engage in weekly one-on-one conversations with their employees, to see how things are going. One example is with a previously shielding operative who has struggled with maintaining COVID secure controls. The manager will explore with the person what steps can be taken to get back on track. This approach helps both the individual and the wider team retain confidence in our approach.

Dealing with anxiety across all teams

Connecting with people who work remotely is always harder than within the central workplace, so managerial staff have also been instructed to put aside time to check how their employees are doing. Meanwhile for office staff working from home, isolation can be a challenge for some. There is also the potential for resentment between frontline operational staff and home-based white-collar workers who are facing less risk.

New ways of working

It’s paramount that you keep your organisation united and focused on serving your customers by showing every team – and every team member – that you care about their welfare, both physical and mental.

From creating group chats on social media and socialising with the whole company, to longer, face-to-face chats and catch-ups with one person, a greater focus on communication helps to maintain morale and performance. This is a constant process of operational development to make sure everyone feels safe.

Good safety is good business, but COVID-19 has taught us that neither is possible without incredibly good communication.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/13/anxiety-on-rise-due-to-coronavirus-say-mental-health-charities

[2] https://yougov.co.uk/topics/economy/articles-reports/2020/06/16/key-workers-struggling-stress-anxiety-and-sleeping

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