Mental Health in the time of Corona – Obligations & Tips for a Mentally Healthy Workplace

While the spotlight has been on physical health – that is, the prospect of workers contracting Covid – now that arrangements are in place (whether that be stand down, reduced hours, work from home or JobKeeper subsidy) it is crucial that businesses consider what measures are necessary to mitigate the impact on their employees’ mental health.

Why should you care?

It may not seem like a priority if your business is suffering financially and you are looking out for your own declining mental health, but it is in your best interests to look out for your staff’s mental health to:

  • Discharge your obligation to provide a safe workplace under WHS laws;
  • Mitigate the risk of any workers’ compensation and/or negligence claims; and
  • Maintain morale and engagement during the Covid-19 period in to ensure a cohesive team when things return to normal, who are ready to hit the ground running.

Awareness of Psychosocial Hazards

With this is mind, the following are a list of psychosocial hazards that Safe Work Australia has raised as possible mental health risks/issues arising from COVID-19:

  • Exposure to customer violence or aggression – for example in healthcare or supermarkets.
  • Increased work demand – for example supermarket home delivery drivers.
  • Isolated work – for example where workers are working from home.
  • Low support – for example workers working in isolation may feel they don’t have the normal support they receive to do their jobs or where work demands have dramatically increased supervisors may not be able to offer the same level of support.
  • Poor environmental conditions – for example where temporary workplaces may be hot, cold or noisy.
  • Poor organisational change management – for example if businesses are restructuring to address the effects of COVID-19 but are not providing information or support to workers. (SafeWork Australia 2020)

What measures can you implement for remote workforce? 

When considering the measures to implement, bear in mind that for employees working from home, their home office is now a workplace. As an employer, you have a duty to ensure that workplace is safe.

  1. Update your remote work policy

Putting aside physical features of that workplace – e.g. adequate chair, lighting, ventilation, First Aid equipment – you should update any remote work policy or create a new temporary Covid remote work policy that contains a check-list about the safety features of the workplace.

That check-list should make provision for a check-in procedure, to reduce the sense of isolation.

See, for example, the following is an excerpt from a Covid-19 remote work policy:

  1. Is your home work space free from asbestos?
  1. Is your home work space safe to access, and clear of clutter and trip hazards?
  1. You have confirmed with your direct manager or such other person appointed from time to time, a suitable “check in” procedure?
  1. Avoid Tokenism

Of course, introducing an amended remote work policy without taking any other action would be tokenistic.

It is crucial that you engage with your staff to ensure the agreed “check in” procedure is maintained throughout the duration of the Covid period.

You may want to take it a step further and implement a “buddy” system, where you allocate each remote worker a buddy who they meet with on a remote platform at agreed intervals.

If an employee indicates that their home workspace is not mentally safe or that they may be exposed to family violence, that must be addressed quickly and sensitively.

If you are aware of a history of family violence, for instance, if an employee has previously taken family and domestic violence leave, it would be prudent to be proactive and discuss the employees’ safety from the outset.

Various health services are reporting increased use in alcohol and substance abuse. It is important to reiterate that your drug and alcohol policies apply at home as they do in the office. It may be necessary to update and adapt these policies to explicitly apply to working from home.

As a show of support, it may be useful to provide details of your Employee Assistance Program with any updated policy or Covid related update.

  1. Business as Usual

In an effort to maintain some sense of normality, we encourage employers to continue any social / team building measures that were already in place and adapt these to the remote space.

For example:

  • Move Friday drinks to virtual drinks / debrief;
  • Move your office ultimate frisby / netball team to an online team – such as weekly online trivia, or a weekly online board game;
  • Circulate a monthly ‘informer’ newsletter that includes light-hearted employee trivia such as: a highlight or anecdote of the week, celebration of outstanding performance, birthdays or even photos of employee pets; or
  • Starting a remote book club.

Conducting business as usual may also mean it is necessary to invest in working resources ranging from training in further learning or leadership as well as office equipment suitable for the home.

Allocating time for employees to attain or renew certifications or to undertake training may be an opportunity for education and value add that may not be possible in “normal” circumstances.

Where finances don’t stretch to paid certification or training, we suggest researching the numerous online educational institutes which are offering various courses for free.

For employees on reduced hours, implementing a period of time each day or week for self-learning may also increase their engagement.

This may pay off as an investment insofar as employees will return to work engaged and with new knowledge to share with the team.

If you have any questions on ensuring your workplace is complying with WHS regulations and supporting employee mental health please do not hesitate to contact Nick Stevens or Jane Murray.

This update is intended only as a general overview of legal issues currently of interest. It is not intended as legal advice and should be used for information purposes only. Please contact us for specific legal advice.

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