How to manage stress during COVID-19

How to manage risks to your employees' psychological health.

You might be surprised by the extent of the risks retail workers and cleaners face to their health and safety.

Recognising the problem is the first step in preventing such injuries. Not focusing on safety could be part of the problem.

Many workers in the retail and cleaning sector work part-time and are reluctant to forfeit those hours if they have a minor injury and will continue to work with a minor injury instead of reporting it and seeking medical attention.

Minor injuries or repetitive motion injuries, when untreated, can get worse over time. In many cases, the employer is complicit in furthering injuries instead of insisting on treatment and preventative measures.

While there are plenty of practical measures you can put in place to keep your employees safe and healthy, there are situations which you cannot plan for which have the potential to cause harm.

Retail workers and cleaners are at increased risk of becoming infected with COVID-19. There are guidelines which are intended to assist businesses meet their obligations to keep both their staff, and the public, safe from COVID-19.

Measures can ensure physical distancing, wearing a mask can be mandatory, and employing security will help ensure compliance with physical distancing obligations.

However, staff still have a key role to play in monitoring the behaviour of customers and ensuring measures put in place to achieve appropriate physical distancing are followed, and this can result in abuse from the public.

We’ve seen this in the now infamous “Bunnings Karen” incident in which a woman unleashed a tirade of abuse towards a mild-mannered Bunnings employee after he asked her to put on a mask when entering the store.

It is worth a reminder that WHS laws cover risks to psychological (mental) health as well as physical health.

This is a stressful time for all Australians, and you must do what is reasonably practicable to eliminate and reduce the psychological risks to your employees.

To determine what measures to put in place, you should carry out a risk assessment and consider all the risks to psychological health in your workplace.

You must also consult your workers, who will know what the issues are and have ideas about how to manage them.

Once you have consulted workers, determined appropriate measures and put them in place, you must continue to review how you are managing the risks to check your measures are working.

The pandemic has not only increased hazards in the workplace, but also led to increased stress due to outside factors such as uncertainty about future employment and social isolation.

Employees working in retail or cleaning are rightly concerned with exposure to COVID-19 at work and may be worried about things such as insufficient appropriate PPE.

There may also be concerns about increased work-related violence, aggression and incivility from customers and members of the public.

Many employees in the cleaning sector have increased demands on their time due to additional shifts to meet increased demands.

There may even be a deterioration of workplace relationships as competing demands lead to less regular and effective communication.

Poor organisational change management will have a negative effect on employees. With the pace of the pandemic it can be hard to plan ahead, and this can result in insufficient information and training being provided to staff.

So, how can you manage risks to your employee’s psychological health?

Safe Work Australia has some resources to help employers know how to prevent psychological injury at work1.

Here are our top tips for managing stress from COVID-19

  • Regularly ask your workers how they are going and if anything is stressing them
  • If a worker is distressed, acknowledge their feelings about the situation and reassure them
  • Stay informed with information from official sources and regularly communicate or share this information with workers
  • Consult your workers on any risks to their psychological health and physical health and safety
  • Address risks where you reasonably can
  • Provide workers with a point of contact to discuss their concerns
  • Make workplace information available in a central place
  • Inform workers about their entitlements if they become unfit for work or have caring responsibilities
  • Inform workers about their rights under WHS laws, including the right to stop work in certain circumstances and the right not to be discriminated against or disadvantaged for raising work health and safety concerns in the workplace
  • Proactively support workers who you identify to be more at risk of workplace psychological injury (e.g. frontline workers or those working from home), and
  • Refer workers to appropriate mental health support services, such as employee assistance programs or mental health helplines such as Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Libby Roberts is founder and director of WRM and LeapForward. Libby is VP of the NSW Board of the Australian Rehabilitation Providers Association and is on the board of the Pain Management Research Institute.

Libby will be presenting at the ISSA Cleaning & Hygiene Expo .

This article was first published in the September/October issue of INCLEAN magazine 

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