Coronavirus: a time for occupational health to find positives?

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The Covid-19 pandemic has been, and continues to be, a challenging time for all professionals, not least those in occupational health. But Nick Pahl explains why it can be a time to focus on the positives and highlight the support OH and their HR colleagues can offer employees.

Our lives have seen massive change, with new uncertainty and challenges. We have missed people and our attention has wandered. There is stress and pressure from the fear of infection and feeling isolated, along with concerns about job or income loss. The crisis has demanded new ways of working and routines.

Weirdly, it can be a time for us all to find positives – if you are an employer, have you been honestly treating mental health as equality important to physical health for your employees? As a leader, employee or self-employed person – have you been able to demonstrate your own vulnerability and compassion as you reach out to help others?

Businesses have a responsibility to support health and wellbeing. They must think about mitigating the risks to employee mental health. Support for managers is required so that they have the confidence to have sensitive discussions around mental health and signpost staff to expert sources of help.

As the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development states in its 20th annual health and wellbeing survey, it is really important that managers are regularly checking in with their team. Health and safety carries on no matter where staff are based and whatever is occurring Covid-19-wise. SOM has recently produced regular blogs on topics such as working from home during challenging times and technology and Covid-19.

Coming up, one thing that will help is testing to identify those who have the virus so they can self-isolate and those who have had the virus and have some natural immunity. The latter should be able to return to work knowing that they cannot spread this virus or catch it again. Work is being done to prove this, and to decide how long immunity will last after an infection. This will help occupational health and HR professionals decide who can return to work and when.

There will still be a group of vulnerable people who will need to remain at home isolating until we can protect them with a reliable vaccine. OH can identify who they are. There are models to emulate such as that of South Korea, who based their control programme around testing and tracing of potential cases.

It is also likely that workers will feel stress from long periods confined at home. Some will also suffer bereavements, so psychological support during this time for employees, managers and families will also be important. This can be provided with health and support from HR and OH but also perhaps by an Employee Assistance Programme. The best support to help with readjustment are family, friends and colleagues. The managers have a big part to play in this and mental health training for managers would be appropriate.

We can look back and balance the trauma of the situation and the opportunity for lessons to be learned.”

Looking forward, we need to see the connection between wellbeing in relation to productivity and competitiveness. We can look back and balance the trauma of the situation and the opportunity for lessons to be learned  – for example that there are jobs designed to improve employee health and wellbeing and managers are confident and capable to support people’s mental wellbeing and prevent stress for future challenging times.

We can ensure occupational health, with HR colleagues, can support and guide managers so that they feel equipped to have sensitive and supportive discussions with staff, reminding managers about the importance of communicating regularly with their team and asking how they are. A mental health strategy for a business will encourage staff to practice self-care such as a healthy routine for diet, sleep and relaxation and signpost people to counselling helplines or other support.

SOM has an advice sheet updated daily, and has released statements on COVID-19 testing for key workers, PPE and handwashing and helped facilitate OH volunteering to help the NHS occupational health community at this difficult time. We have added resources to our Work and Health area such as What should occupational health professionals know about mental health and Covid-19?

Nick Pahl

About Nick Pahl

Nick Pahl is CEO of the Society of Occupational Medicine.

One Response to Coronavirus: a time for occupational health to find positives?

  1. Avatar
    Clare Sims 9 Apr 2020 at 6:52 pm #

    Thank you for this very helpful information. Now is definitely the time to provide employee assistance programs,financial advisers,stress management and specific training for managers to help them to understand the need for empathy when having difficult conversations.

    The copy of the HSE DSE Assessment is particularly helpful since so many people are now setting up their home offices and may have little or no knowledge of ergonomic principles to prevent musculo-skeletal issues.

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