Covid-19: Impact on Workers Compensation and Mental Health & Wellbeing
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on workers across Australia as evidenced by a rapid shift to stay at or work from home, as well as record unemployment levels. As states begin to reopen, it is tempting to think that the worst may be over. Unfortunately, significant uncertainty remains around the long-term effects for organisations, including potential for continued cycles of infections and when/if employees can return to work safely. As a result, the virus will continue to challenge employers with regard to the mental health and wellbeing of employees and potential workers’ compensation claims.
Since starting our COVID-19 Virtual Roundtable series just a few months ago, we have been receiving many questions regarding how COVID-19 is impacting the WHSE landscape and how it is changing employee working arrangements, mental health & welling, and workers compensation. With daily changes in government restrictions, as well as changes to state and federal regulations, the question is what will be the full impact of COVID-19 on employee’s health and well-being and ultimately on workers compensation. And whilst many experts agree it’s too early to know all of the impacts, there are some important themes starting to emerge.
To discuss the impact of COVID-19 on workers compensation and mental health & wellbeing, Michele Beale, Head of Safety Frazer Jones Australia, invited four industry experts to join our WHSE COVID-19 Virtual Roundtable.
From the discussion we compiled the following key takeaways:-
How have businesses encouraged employees to take breaks and utilise annual leave to prevent burnout (even though no one wants to take annual leave right now because of lockdown)?
Encouraging staff to take time off throughout the year, and utilise the full extent of their allowance, can be as beneficial to employers as employees. Taking time off has a significant effect on employee stress levels, general health, productivity, and retention. However, employers are currently facing a conundrum: force workers with nowhere to go to take time off or deal with the fallout of burned out, depleted teams that have been working non-stop through the coronavirus lockdown.
- At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis many businesses encouraged employees to take excess leave prior to the end of financial year. Whilst there was no incentive around this, the message was clear that if all employees work collectively, it can support the business through this tough time, ensuing that excessive leave accumulation did not have a financial impact for the business
- As the pandemic continued the messaging changed from taking leave to support the business, to taking leave to ensure good work-life balance. Encouraging employees to take days off for family activities, projects around the house or home schooling for the kids
- Organisations are finding lots of different ways to incentivise and encourage employees to take their leave. For example, take 2 weeks leave in September and gain an extra week of leave over Christmas
- Leaders must also set an example by taking vacation time. Utilising Senior Leaders to advocate the benefits of taking leave and taking a break from the current environment
- Business can also encourage people to share holiday photos and staycation travel tips, so as to prompt others to take time off
- Sending out regular reminders as part of company newsletters or individual emails to confirm employees’ remaining entitlement
- Mentioning annual leave during meetings can motivate employees to book time off throughout the year and create a culture where discussion around holidays is open and positive
- Using internal networking tools to regularly communicate the importance of taking breaks and time off for personal mental health
What wellness programs have employers implemented to maintain employee mental health and to ensure staff don’t burn out?
Whilst the overwhelming majority of employers have always offered emotional and mental well-being supports as part of their wellness programs, COVID-19 has proven their full value now more than ever. The pandemic has created plenty of uncertainties beyond adjusting to new work arrangements, and resiliency efforts have proven pivotal in helping these workers navigate the stress related to COVID-19.
- Organisations are putting health and wellbeing in the hands of their employee’s and asking what they would like to see implemented?
- Corporate Employee Assistance programs can provide access to licensed counsellors to help employees cope with fear, anxiety and other emotions or concerns they may have
- Some businesses have introduced mental health campaigns to increase awareness and reduce stigma associated with mental health
- Uprise, an app called that measures stress and wellbeing, has proven a great tool for businesses to provide employees with techniques and strategies to manage stress
- The provision of self-guided resilience resources for all employees and the introduction of webinars and seminars around different topics (resilience, boundary setting, overall wellbeing) have been hugely beneficial.
- It is important to set-up a calendar of programs to ensure a good cross-section of content and to ensure topics are delivered during appropriate periods for example activities in August leading up to R U OK day in September
- Equally as important are healthy lifestyle behaviours that contribute to physical, emotional and social health. Physical activity, balanced diet, and adequate sleep should be frequently reinforced, in addition to ergonomics and repetitive stress injury prevention for employees working remotely
- Other well-being program initiative that help to maintain employee mental health include:-
- Weekly self-care videos
- Resiliency and stress management activities
- 1:1 health coaching for employees and their spouses
- Live meditation sessions
- Fitness activity breaks
- Morale boosting activities
- Themed Friday happy hour Zoom sessions
- Virtual book club.
Given that managers and supervisors are the main connection of their people to the organisation, how have employers supported managers to engage in effective well-being conversations? And how are employers receiving this feedback from their managers?
Managers and supervisors play a critical role in supporting their employees’ safety, health, and well-being, more so now than ever before. They must set the tone and serve as a resource for all employees. While all employees need support, managers need to care for themselves first so that they can, in turn, care for others as well. It’s crucial for organisations to invest in an intentional culture of manager support that strongly encourages, enables and expects manager self-care. By example, this will instil healthier self-care in all employees across the organisation.
- Leaders have a slightly different role at the moment and are key in delivering the messages of the business to employees whilst working remotely
- Whilst there’s no one perfect way to support employees in an unprecedented situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, employers need to arm their managers with the right tools and communications to support their employees that will be experiencing a number of different situations
- Businesses need to engage with their management teams weekly to ensure that expectations are clearly set and agreed upon. Unrealistic expectations during a crisis can push managers over the edge. In order for managers to care for their employees, the organisation must care for managers
- Not all leaders are cut from the same cloth, so it’s important for organisation people and culture teams to help managers in adapting to new way of work in the virtual environment as well as continuing with and enhancing leadership programs
- To enable employers to get a thorough understanding of what is happing within a broad sense of the business, it is essential to organise a weekly get together with managers where feedback can be provided and shared. This is an opportunity for managers to provide senior management with feedback on what initiatives are and are not working, any employees that may be struggling in the current environment etc. It is also important to discuss at these sessions any issues that managers personally may be experiencing and where additional support may be required.
- Whilst also ensuring the formal side of the manager meet ups, it is important for businesses to have a fun aspect of the meeting and not just talk about work. Introduce some fun conversations to mix things up.
Injuries sustained whilst working from home. With much of the country now WFH, there is a greater degree of complexity associated with injuries sustained in the course of employment when employees are working variable hours that accommodate other commitments, such as home schooling. How are employers managing this? And are the Panel aware of any claims that have tested ‘out of or in the course of employment’?
While work from home arrangements have intrinsic challenges, the current COVID-19 social isolation measures add further difficulty, as many employees are now balancing working from home with childcare obligations or home-schooling. In general, injuries sustained by an employee during normal working hours, and during the actual performance of work activities while at home are compensable, however that doesn’t mean that the injury has to occur only between standard business hours to be covered.
- One concern for businesses is around when does the workday actually start and finish? Are businesses liable for someone who suffers an injury at 10pm at night? Is it reasonable for an employee to undertake their duties at 10pm at night, especially if they can argue that their work schedule consists of work in the morning followed by time off to be with the children and then they resume work again in the evening? Do employees need to get formal approval for COVID-19 related work from home scheduling changes? It is proving to be a tricky and interesting situation form businesses and WHSE professionals to see what claims go through and are tested
- To assist with home office ergonomics, some employers provided approved equipment such as an ergonomic chair, monitor, keyboard, mouse, so as to ensure each employee was set up with the right tools to conduct their work safely and effectively. Others provided a dollar amount to use towards the purchase of selected approved equipment
- To help limit workers’ compensation liability for home-based employees, employers can implement the following practices:
- have a robust policy that outlines the employer's expectations for employees who work from home
- establish guidelines for a home office, such as a designated work area, and provide training related to workstation setup and safety measures, including ergonomics
- negotiate and fix work hours, taking into consideration any special requirements needed
- Many businesses had anticipated that more working from home injuries would have been reported and seen by now, however this does not seem to be the case. From a claims perspective, it doesn’t seem that people are taking advantage of a compensation system. Many have been pleasantly surprised at the small number of incidents.
- Injury claims reported to the panel to date include:
- A claim related to an eye strain injury where potentially the equipment was inadequate to allow them to safely perform their role
- A claim related to a home environment that was not suitable for work from a psychological perspective. Home circumstances are not a work issue but if you are working from home then it does translate into that area
- The preference for most businesses in dealing with WFH injuries is to work with the internal management team around how to resolve an injury and then return to work as quick as possible
- In the past many businesses have relied on administrative controls and guidelines, tip sheets, and self-assessments to manage working from home safety. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing, there are many offices that are unlikely to reopen this year, meaning companies must start to review their policies for safety while working from home. As the remote-work routine blurs the boundaries of personal and professional lives, what do businesses need to do to help employees adjust to the extension of temporary remote work situations?
If you are interested in being part of our conversation and/or would like to join one of our WHSE Virtual Roundtables, please get in touch with Michele Beale, Head of Safety Frazer Jones Australia.