The recent spike in cases is distressing, but it shows that the people profession has a powerful role to play.
Yesterday we heard the devastating news that Australia had record high numbers of COVID-19 cases.
As we all know, Victoria, and Melbourne in particular, is the epicentre of the continuing climb in numbers. For those who heard and saw Victorian premier Daniel Andrews announce the 723 new cases and 13 deaths yesterday, it was a sad, distressing moment. The Australian HR Institute’s headquarters are in Melbourne, so the moment was keenly felt by me and many of my colleagues.
Victoria is not alone, however. Not only in the sense that cases have been recorded in other states, such as NSW and QLD, but also because this country has an amazing capacity for solidarity. The outpouring of support from people in less affected states has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated.
One of the ways this pandemic tries to break your spirit is by making you hope that each day of record high cases will be the worst of it. That the next day will see a reduction, and the day after that a further decline. But the virus has its own logic, so what looks like a downward trend can be thwarted within 24 hours.
However, we must not let our spirits be crushed. There are practical steps each of us can take to make things a little better. I know many AHRI members and other HR practitioners believe the profession is playing an outsized role in this. And I absolutely believe the same thing.
In his press conference, the premier did not mince words about whether or not work was at the heart of the increasing numbers.
“If you are going to work with symptoms, if you’re going to work when you’re sick, then you will inevitably spread this virus. This is the biggest driver, it’s not the only issue, but it is the biggest driver,” he said.
“My plea, my appeal, my request and our requirement is that no one go to work if they have symptoms.”
It is not controversial at all to say that HR can play a substantial part in making sure no potentially infected person goes to work.
We should not take the premier’s pleas lightly. He relayed that yesterday 30 Australian Defence Force teams knocked on the doors of 269 properties of people who tested positive for the virus – both to check they were complying but also to see if those people needed help filling prescriptions or getting basic supplies.
He said a number of people who had tested positive were not at home, and their cases will be referred to Victoria Police. Some of them, their household members relayed, had gone to work.
This is worth dwelling on because it is illustrative of just how dire our situation is. Our nation’s enlisted men and women are in our cities knocking on neighbourhood doors. Yet people who had been directed to isolate, who could spread the virus, went to work. They put themselves, their colleagues, their colleagues’ families and the wider community at risk.
That behaviour is at the extreme end of a spectrum that includes going to work in between having a test done and getting the results, and going to work with possible symptoms.
We should not be quick to cast judgement. There are both cultural and financial pressures that cause people to act against the greater interest. Casual workers who are locked out of JobKeeper in particular can feel that they need to work.
And, despite having the reputation for chucking sickies, there is a lot of evidence to say that by and large Australians are very hard working. Not only do they regularly work longer than they are paid for, a 2019 YouGov poll of approximately 1,000 Australians found that two thirds expected to go to work while sick over the winter.
HR has a role to play in reducing the pressure people feel to attend work when they should not.
With regards to financial pressures, they can educate staff about the various government support schemes available to those who get tested or those who need to quarantine. In Victoria, the state government will pay $300 to those isolating while awaiting test results, and $1,500 for those who either test positive or are in close contact with someone who does (see the DHHS website for details).
But a lack of money is not the only issue. People can feel compelled to work while sick because they fear longer term impacts to their career. This pressure comes from a number of sources – personal, professional and cultural. To overcome it, we must all remember that our health and wellbeing, and that of others, is of overriding importance. What good is a career if we don’t have them?
AHRI’s monthly pulse surveys prove that HR professionals have become very familiar with stress. For many, 2020 will be the busiest year they will ever experience. Just as they get their organisation through one regulatory change, a change of a completely different sort demands their attention. So for their own sake as much as everyone else’s, HR should help guide leaders to forefront the wellbeing of all employees.
Organisations should be saying, “It’s okay to be sick – but it’s not okay for you to be sick at work.”
Employees need to believe that their careers are by no means in jeopardy if they do the right thing. They must also be warned about how much they put at stake if they ignore risk factors.
Many organisations are way ahead of this trend, and have already established wellbeing as a top priority, both because it has proven benefits to business sustainability and because it is the right thing to do.
For those that haven’t, as I have previously said about parental leave and our D&I advisory committee has said about diversity and inclusion, this pandemic can be used as a burning platform to make transformational changes that will help your organisation long into the future. Our national need to withdraw can also be an opportunity for us to come together and take a great leap forward.
Yesterday was distressing. It’s altogether possible that today will be too. But someday we will be able to meet again without anxiety, and social distancing will be a distant memory. Until then, stay safe, be well and look after one another.