An issue for employers at present is how to assuage employee fears of infection as they return to work and business ramps back up. In this blog Finch Consulting experts Health and Safety lawyer Sue Dearden and Occupational Hygienist Dr Steve Cowley suggest a few practical tips to help employers to deal with employee fears of Covid-19 infection.
Boris Johnson’s address to the nation on 23rd March 2020 was intended to secure compliance with lockdown measures necessary to bring the spread of the Coronavirus under control. His language (referring to the virus as“ the biggest threat this country has faced for decades” and “this invisible killer”) intentionally propagated the idea that if people didn’t do as instructed, they risked not just criminal penalties, but serious debilitating illness and an isolated death. At that time, 336 people in total were reported to have died in the UK due to the virus – an increase of 55 on the previous day
It is unsurprising that people are nervous about returning to work when deaths each day are often still more than the total death toll when we entered lock down. People are questioning how reasonable it is for their employers to insist on a return to work. Why should they feel safe now when they were told very clearly they were not safe before? It is easy to understand the popular perception that safety is being compromised in the interest of profit.
Three tips to help employers manage this conundrum:
Understand the fear
People’s perception of risk is influenced by many different things. If we understand how people feel about a risk, we can address concerns and provide reassurance.
The government emphasis of the gravity of the situation and the relentless media attention has left many people feeling that they are at high risk of infection and severe consequences.
Many people will know someone who has been infected and, sadly, some people know of someone who has died or may even have lost a close friend or relative. Personal experience will increase the perception of risk above someone who has only seen the statistics. Some people are at high risk, but the majority are not. The risk of severe illness among healthy, working age people is relatively low when compared to other risks in day-to-day life. However, such reassurances do not necessarily help when dealing with personal perception. The perception of risk has the capacity to become a paralysing anxiety.
We must recognise that there may be fear and understand people’s concerns before we can address them. This involves talking to people about their perception of the risk; how likely do they think that infection is and how bad do they think it might be.
With that understanding we can begin to provide visible measures that will reduce anxiety.
Provide clear messages about on-going risk management measures including those to protect people who because of age and/or health, are particularly vulnerable. Instil confidence by demonstrating an understanding of good risk control. Do this by emphasising things like frequent hand washing rather than hand sanitising, which is less effective and should only be a supplement to hand washing. Give the enhanced cleaning programme and disinfecting of frequent hand-contact surfaces a high profile; make the cleaning team visible. Use positive messages and distinctive signage and markings to reinforce social distancing and shielding of the most vulnerable.
Two way communication
Steer away from alienating a frightened workforce by simply telling them what you have put in place and how those measures reduce risk. Ask them for their opinion on the risk controls and what ideas they have.
While there is a legal obligation to consult your workforce on health and safety arrangements, consultation does have many benefits. Consultation is an effective way of understanding how people feel and what they think of the risk controls being put in place. Going a step further and achieving employee engagement will lead to people volunteering suggestions and will increase adoption and full use of the control measures.
Engagement starts with a dialogue. Begin with explanations of the risk management measures you are proposing and listen to people’s fears and anxieties. Reassure anyone at high risk or with vulnerable members of their household about the extra control measures in place for them. Discuss the control measures in general and look for suggestions for improvements.
Audit and review
Ensure that employees are aware that the controls will be regularly reviewed. Involve employees in the reviews. This can be informal; just ask people how well things are working and on anything that they feel can be managed better. Remember, some of the coronavirus risk controls in place will have had a knock-on effect on the way work is undertaken. Tasks may take longer, and some new non-virus risks may have been created.
It is likely that the coronavirus risk management measures will be in place for some time to come and through employee engagement they will continually improve. Through employee engagement in all aspects of health and safety you can get on a path towards best practice for your business. It is, after all, in everyone’s interests for risk controls to be both practical and effective. You might even encourage people to test their knowledge of risk management and health and safety through the Finch quiz