Article originally published by HR Leading Edge

At this moment, many workplaces of different shapes and sizes are asking the same question: ‘is it safe to return to work?’. The answer isn’t exactly ‘yes’ or ‘no’. There are many preliminary factors to consider, such as the state of public transport, mental health services and implementing a structure that best suits employees with logical HR policies and procedures. Understandably, many won’t feel comfortable returning to the workplace until they are certain it is safe to do so.

Trust and confidence in the workplace:

Clearly, most of the concerns about returning to work revolve around safety, and workers may not trust their employees to deliver that.

According to recent data, Australians have felt workplaces that remained open have done the bare minimum to ensure the safety of their employees during COVID-19. Beyond social distancing, there has been a staggering lack of basic preventative measures and support.

The overlooked issue:

When there is such a large focus on physical safety, the concern for mental health can often fall by the wayside. The most notable finding of all in the poll was that barely 1% of those still in their workplace said their employer had made any effort to support their mental health.

With millions of Australians grappling with mental health issues prior to COVID-19, it is no surprise that the pandemic has infected vulnerable individuals (so to speak) with feelings of isolation, anxiety, trauma and panic. Experts have noted that this is occurring globally and not just within Australia.

These findings should ring alarm bells for any HR professional and evoke prioritisation of offering mental health support in addition to implementing physical safety measures.

The daily commute:

Recently, you may have noticed the roads getting busier, public transport filling up and a sense of “normalcy” in the air. Whilst driving to the office may seem like the most logical option in regards to safety, not everyone has that luxury. According to a 2016 census, on any given day 488,012 Australians get the train to work. It is difficult to imagine how social distancing will be applied to public transport once all workplaces are given the green light to reopen.

Over the coming months HR will probably get questions about public transport and is advisable to be prepared and informed.

As we return to our routines, the best advice is to continue following the hygiene guidelines recommended by medical experts as compiled by HRM. When catching public transport, commuters can take some steps to protect their health:

  • Keep a distance between yourself and others when possible
  • There are differing opinions on wearing masks in public but it can make some staff feel safer, so it should not be discouraged
  • Use contactless payment options, such as Opal, Myki or payWave
  • Avoid touching hard surfaces
  • When pressing buttons try to use your elbow, or try to create a barrier with your sleeve or a tissue
  • Travel with hand sanitizer and tissues, and use them often
  • Practice coughing and sneezing etiquette (that’s coughing into your elbow and away from others)
  • Avoid touching your face

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to say public transport is one hundred percent safe, but for many people, it is the only option. At the very least HR can listen to the concerns of staff members and accommodate them where possible.

Keeping employees safe:

Of course, under medical advice of the government, the most effective way to implement workplace safety is giving employees the option to work remotely (or work from home) if and when they can. If this is not always an option, there are multiple ways to ensure the safety of the workplace (beyond putting up a couple of signs that say ‘please keep a social distance of 1.5 metres).

HRM notes that  the most troubling finding in the report is that less than five per cent of respondents said their workplace was implementing additional workplace cleaning or disinfection, and only 11 per cent of workers in the workplace said they were provided with additional personal hygiene products such as hand sanitiser.

That being said, it is possible that employers are implementing further safety measures but are not communicating this information to their employees. It is vital that effective workplace communication is applied so workers are well informed and ultimately feel comfortable and happy at work.

Suzanne Gavrilovic, senior HR consultant at leading HR consultancy mwah. (making work absolutely human) says there are three reasons to apply this communication around work safety:

  • It informs people around protocols in the workplace.
  • It offers staff members confidence that the business is committed to caring for their health and safety.
  • It lets individuals know their concerns were listened to, and will continue to be sought and acted upon in the future.

Not only are these measures important for physical wellbeing, but will reduce anxiety and go hand in hand with mental health support.