COVID-19 and the HR roadmap (AMP #24)

The pandemic has changed the workplace forever. COVID-19 has put the spotlight on workplace issues, employee entitlements and well-being – and it’s imperative that leaders adapt effectively.

We are in the midst of critical workplace changes and challenges, including working from home (WFH), embracing technology such as Zoom and other communication apps, and changed working conditions with new procedures and protocols. There is also a shift in mindset on return to work after lockdowns, with the spotlight firmly set on mental health and managing leave. On top of that, now we also have the challenge of managing vaccinations in the workplace.

However, it’s not all bad news. While 23% of Australians in general said nothing good happened to them in 2020, 75% of employees think positively about their employers and 47% use the word ‘supportive’ when asked to describe their employer in 2020.*

There has also been a collective change in the mindset of employers – working from home can produce results, with employees doing the same work at home, but more efficiently.

Some top researchers say the coronavirus pandemic will have a lasting, positive impact on workplace culture.

‘It is very likely that the newly discovered way of working from home and virtual collaboration will stick,’ said Frederik Anseel, Associate Dean of Research and Professor of Management at UNSW Business School.

‘People have now experienced themselves some unmistakeable benefits such as decreased commute times, winning back time for family life, autonomy in planning their own work schedule, time for uninterrupted, focused work.

‘At the same time, employers will have felt that the sky did not come tumbling down when people were working from home. They too see how productivity in some cases might actually benefit and they will also start considering if the high costs of office building are really necessary, given the current situation.’

Mental health – a workplace issue

Promoting workplace wellness and prioritising self-care is at the top of the agenda for every business in 2021 and beyond, with discussions about mental health becoming standard practice. All workplaces will be required to have a Mental Health Policy in place by 2023.

According to the NSW Mental Health Commission, 45% of all Australians will be affected by a mental illness at some point in their life. By 2023, anxiety and depression combined are expected to be the second biggest contributor to the burden of disease in Australia.

A NSW study found a staggering 84% of the NSW population (approximately 6.2 million people) has an undiagnosed mental illness. This affects your business – there could be people in your workplace suffering and you don’t know about it.

This is a great opportunity to engage in workplace surveys and to really start asking your employees how they are feeling and how you can help them – it requires diving deeper than simply asking “are you okay?” .

The Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012-2022 (revised in 2018), published by Safe Work Australia, provides a framework to drive improvements in work health and safety in Australia. It promotes a collaborative approach between the Commonwealth, state and territory governments, industry and unions and other organisations.

The strategy is underpinned by two key principles:

  1. All workers regardless of their occupation or how they are engaged have the right to a healthy and safe working environment.
  2. Well-designed healthy and safe work will allow workers in Australia to have more productive working lives.

The government’s role is to ensure not only that health and safety standards are met but that they evolve as the nature of work in Australia evolves and that businesses are able to remain compliant while keeping pace with technological and economic changes.

Managing leave

Managing leave has always been a challenge. In my capacity as an HR professional, if I had to rank the issues my clients call me about, managing leave would be number one.

Prior to COVID-19, the average time employees used for sick days was 8.8 days, costing employers between $340 to $578 per employee per absent day.**

Of course, the pandemic has since changed this because now the mindset is if you are unwell, stay at home. Previously, many employees would come to work with a sniffle or mild cold symptoms and work through it, but now there is pressure from the government, from society and from their peers to stay at home when they are sick. Consequently, we will see an increase in the amount of sick leave employees are taking.

“Presenteeism” is also something to be aware of – attending work and under-performing while unwell. Collectively, absenteeism and presenteeism costs Australian business around $44 billion a year.

This is a great time to have conversations with your staff about managing their leave and being transparent about leave accrual. Ask questions and take note of leave requests and sick days. Why are they taking leave? Is there something you, as the employer, can do to help them? It might be an opportunity to change working hours, or to grant a short break from work to get their life back in order. Sometimes, just by opening the lines of communication and having a conversation, you can solve issues right there and then.

Often, leave can be an indicator of something deeper. Encouraging your staff to talk to you about their need for leave is going to save you money and help your employees feel more supported and valued about the work they do for you.

In terms of defining access to personal leave, The Fair Work Commission (FWC) has defined the use of Personal (sick) and Carer’s Leave:

  • If they are unfit for work because of their own personal illness or injury (including pregnancy-related illness), or
  • To provide care or support to a member of their immediate family or household, because of a personal illness, injury or unexpected emergency affecting the member.
  • Visits to the dentist or to recover from elective procedures (eg. cosmetic surgery) are not covered by this leave.

The FWC has clearly stipulated that personal leave is only for times when employees are unwell and unable to work. Previously, this was not clearly identified. The new definition helps employers have a better guide – for example, a cosmetic procedure does not grant an employee access to their sick leave.

Navigating the HR road ahead

It’s time to rethink what you are doing in your workplace, to reexamine what is expected from your employees and to rewrite your policies.

Changed working conditions or expectations – including COVID screenings, admission forms and temperature tests, increased cleaning, changes to checking-out protocols and opening times – means changes to your Policy & Procedures Manual. If you haven’t already done so, it’s time to update your manual with clear, precise changes. Embrace the benefits of today’s technology to communicate these changes more effectively. Apps such as Asana, Google Hangouts and Slack are incredibly useful tools to connect with your team.

Now is the time to talk to your team and communicate with them – with all the new COVID-related changes, do they have the support they need? Do they have enough time in their work day to complete their changing roles and responsibilities? Do they need another staff member? Do we need a different process?

Once you’ve created this new workplace and started to look at what your employees really need – focusing on the fact that employees most want to feel supported – it’s time to start rolling out these changes in a meaningful way. The key to this is, as always, transparent and open communication. AMP #24

Independent research conducted by Nature on behalf of SEEK – November 2020
** The Australian HR Institute (AHR)