There’s a lot of talk around opening up and returning to work, but new research suggests workers want more safety measures in place first.
Many workplaces at the moment are in a state of evaluation. For those that moved their workforces mostly, or entirely, to remote work, the question they are asking is, ‘How do we return to the office?’
This question sounds simple until you start to consider all the logistics associated with it. Is public transport safe? What structure best suits our employees? And these are just preliminary considerations.
Most of these questions are about one topic in particular: safety. And it seems Australian workers might not trust their employers to deliver it.
Recent data collected by UComms on behalf of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) suggest that, beyond social distancing, most workers do not think their workplaces have implemented strategies to protect their safety during COVID-19.
This biggest issue
The ACTU surveyed 1,367 workers in paid employment (excluding the self-employed) about what actions their workplaces were taking to keep employees safe. The results were split into two groups; those working remotely (43 per cent) against those who are still in the workplace (57 per cent).
The most alarming result was around mental health support. Only one per cent of those working from home said their workplace had taken actions to support employer mental health. Of the respondents still in the workplace, none of them reported their employer implementing any kind of mental health support.
Prior to the pandemic, a report by Springfox found 79 per cent of Australians reported a lack of personal resilience, putting them at risk of mental health issues. Now, COVID-19 has made our mental health even more vulnerable. We are grappling with feelings of trauma, isolation and, in some cases, survival syndrome.
Figuring out why these workers have not been provided that support, or, at least, why they are unaware of any additional mental health support structures, would require further research. But the report should ring alarm bells for any HR professional in an organisation where this is the case.
Keeping workers safe
Perhaps 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.
When asked if workers had been informed about hygiene actions taken by their employer, less than five per cent said they were aware of extra cleaning, and less than 10 per cent said they discussed supplying additional personal hygiene products with their employer.
That being said, it is certainly possible employers are implementing extra safety measures, but they’re not communicating it well (or at all) to their employees.
Suzanne Gavrilovic, senior HR consultant at leading HR consultancy MWAH (make work absolutely human), has previously told HRM it’s important any plans around workplace safety are communicated to all stakeholders.
She says there are three reasons for this:
- 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.
If staff don’t think their workplace is taking any action to prevent an outbreak, the risk is that they will feel underappreciated and assume their employers care little for their safety. Moreover, if employers are providing additional hand sanitiser or personal protective gear and workers don’t know about it, it’s completely ineffective.
The one safety consideration workers felt employers had paid particular attention to was social distancing. Over 80 per cent of workers still in the workplace said they had had discussions with their employer about social distancing, and 70 per cent said their employer had taken action around social distancing.
Remote vs workplace
In most cases, workers at the workplace and at home reported similar experiences around workplace cleaning and personal hygiene. However, a large gap opened up when participants were asked about flexible work agreements.
Thirty per cent of respondents working remotely said they had discussed flexible working arrangements with their employer. And 25 per cent said their employer had implemented options for working remotely where possible.
Comparatively, only five per cent of those still in the workplace said they had discussed flexible working arrangements or that their employer had implemented options for working from home.
This might seem troubling, but the report didn’t provide a breakdown of which industries the participants were from. Considering the research was sponsored by the ACTU, it’s possible many of them engage in work that cannot be completed from home.
It’s not just Australians
This report might seem like an outlier, but it actually matches up with reports from around the world.
A report from Citrix Systems in the US showed 77 per cent of workers did not want to return to their workplace until additional safety measures, like wearing face masks, were taken.
In the UK a report commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found 44 per cent of employees were anxious about returning to the workplace. In a media release accompanying the report, CIPD CEO, Peter Cheese said workers did “not feel safe enough to return to the workplace due to concerns for their own safety or others they are close to”.
While the UK and the US are in a much different place with reference to the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak, all these reports highlight there are a lot of conversations that just aren’t happening.
Employer transparency has never been more important. Employees are anxious and they have every right to be. Communicating clearly in this crisis, and listening to feedback, will not only help employees feel less anxious, but it will also tell organisations where their gaps are.