Spotlight on health & safety in the workplace

Creating a mentally healthy workplace is not just a moral responsibility it’s also a legal requirement.

The current worldwide pandemic has put the spotlight on health and safety in every aspect of our lives. While business owners struggle to adjust to the constant changes to government restrictions and new directives from the various State and Territory health authorities, employers are now also bound to respond to and implement new Work Health & Safety laws.

These new WHS laws not only relate to COVID-19 – physical distancing, hygiene and cleaning in the workplace – but also to the employers’ responsibility to consult with employees and ensure they provide a mentally healthy workplace.

A collective groan could be heard from just about every business owner in the country when Safe Work Australia advised all business owners of their duty to consult with workers on health and safety matters relating to COVID-19.

The estimated annual cost of mental health to NSW businesses is $2.6 billion, largely through lost productivity and absenteeism.

The news that they must give workers the opportunity to express their views and raise concerns, take the views of workers into account and then advise workers of the outcome of consultation, was met with a cry for help: “How can we possibly find the time to do this while working to keep our business alive during these uncertain times?”

As a small business owner, this added responsibility can seem overwhelming on top of managing the day-to-day aspects of the business. Finding the time for the added duty to consult with workers and being held responsible for ensuring the mental health and wellbeing of employees is a new dimension for many employers – but one that can’t be ignored.

The levels of anxiety, fear, uncertainty and emotional distress experienced because of COVID-19 isolation, social distancing and restrictions have had a negative impact on individuals, communities and workplaces. According to a study from HR tech firm Kronos, about three in four workers (73%) with children under 18 in the household believe the stress and strain of 2020 – from the COVID-19 pandemic to social and political unrest – are starting to take a toll on their work performance.

Safe Work Australia has been ahead of the curve in recognising the importance of mental health in the workplace and developed the Mentally Healthy Workplaces Strategy 2018 – 2022. Its vision is that employers and workers will work together to take effective action to create mentally healthy workplaces. Its target is that by 2022 more than 90,000 businesses will be taking effective action to create mentally healthy workplaces.

A healthy workplace is a successful workplace

There is evidence to support that a healthy workplace positively impacts the business’s bottom line. The estimated annual cost of mental health to NSW businesses is $2.6 billion, largely through lost productivity and absenteeism. A study by Beyond Blue and TNS (2014) found 13% absenteeism in a healthy workplace as opposed to 46% absenteeism in an unhealthy workplace. That’s almost a 300% increase!

The new COVID WHS laws have brought the need to give and receive regular feedback from employees into the spotlight. Feedback is one of the most critical tools of an employer. Now, more than ever, open communication is paramount to reduce the fear, uncertainty and doubt that everyone is facing.

A simple and effective means of consulting with employees and providing quality feedback is to run an employee survey. The process does not have to be expensive as there are many free online tools to manage this process simply and effectively.

Sharing feedback and taking action is key

The real value of conducting an employee survey is realised in the action that follows the questionnaire. Simply drawing on workers’ experiences and asking for ideas and comments will do little to improve workplace issues. In fact, running a survey and not following up with a plan of action will demotivate the team.

Running an employee survey should not just measure how happy an employee is or what issues they have. A well-planned survey will measure how healthy the whole workplace is and what issues the wider workplace needs to address.

The COVID experience has required us all to make changes to the way we live and work. Instead of lamenting that things will never be the same, now is the time to explore novel strategies, including employee engagement surveys, and implementing wellness programs. These will all support your most valuable asset: your staff.

Organisations that find ways to reduce stress and pressure in the workplace will be repaid in spades with engagement and productivity. AMP #23