During the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of people are working from home, in isolation while others have been furloughed. This may present employers with new and different challenges regarding the mental health of workers, especially if those workers haven’t had much experience of working from home. These issues need to be assessed and managed.
This post looks at stress at work in this context and identifies some of the issues that employers now have to address.
The HSE has described stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed upon them’. One of the difficulties in managing stress is that it affects people differently – what may be stressful for one person may not be stressful for someone else. In these unprecedented times though, employers are entering uncharted territory where perhaps they have never before had to consider the stress that workers may experience when working from home, or when not working at all. It may be that we will see the rate of stress-related illness increase as the pandemic and associated lockdown continues, so here are some thoughts on what an employer will need to think about when assessing the risk.
What DEMANDS are being placed on workers? Have they had to face such demands before? It may be that workers are experiencing increasing demands due to reduced staff numbers, or perhaps they are having to deal with new things as their employer’s business tries to adapt to a new way of working. Some may relish the opportunity and enjoy the variety; others may feel acutely stressed and will need additional support.
How much CONTROL over their work do workers have? It seems to me that the nature of homeworking may place more control in the hands of the worker; this will be fine for some, but what about those who need a little more direction? Could they feel more stressed by having to take more control of the work that they are doing?
What degree of SUPPORT is the employer able to provide? If working remotely, it won’t be possible to seek help face-to-face, so employers will need to think about what mechanisms they might introduce to ensure that workers feel adequately supported in their work and have the right resources available. That goes for those on furlough too – it is important that they don’t feel forgotten by their employer.
What about RELATIONSHIPS? There is inevitably going to be less contact between workers. This may be a positive point in some cases, but where there is less contact could interdependence start to decline? What effect will that have on the effectiveness of the team? Could this, in turn, damage the business?
Will workers be asked to adjust to a new ROLE, or will their current role be changed? This can be stressful as it causes uncertainty and takes people away from what they are comfortable doing.
Finally, how is CHANGE being managed? We are currently undergoing massive change; with change comes uncertainty, and uncertainty causes fear and stress. So what is the employer doing to allay fears? This also applies to furloughed staff – those who may be off work with 80% salary may initially enjoy the break but will soon realise that their employer may go bust, in which case they will lose their income completely. What then? What is the employer doing to address this concern?
Employers will need to amend their risk assessment for stress at work to reflect these changed ways of working and the associated new stresses. A failure to do so could lead to problems down the line, with the spectre of legal proceedings for mental ill-health never far over the horizon.
Given the above, safety practitioners must think carefully about the advice they will be giving their employers, whilst employers must continue to take an active interest in their workers’ wellbeing, wherever they may be and whatever they may be doing.
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