The pandemic and workforce sustainability: what the past can teach us

COVID-19 is the first pandemic to mandate self-isolation and force change upon the landscape of work across the world.

Pedestrians wearing masks.

Learning from past pandemics and epidemics

To understand these consequences and learn from the social, physical and psychological effects of previous public health events, icare conducted a literature review of 70 papers from the past 100 years of epidemics, pandemics and crisis situations.

A report on this literature review, The effects of public health events (epidemics and pandemics) on workforce sustainability (PDF 0.5MB), contains insights which enhance our understanding of the impact of a pandemic on the sustainability and recovery of the workforce.

For example, managers, supervisors and leaders may experience:

  • difficulties in setting boundaries (i.e. leaving workplace and staff)
  • increased sense of responsibility to staff
  • guilt (i.e. when instructed to stay home)
  • difficulty dealing with emotions—their own and their team's—while providing support.

To help their employees feel safe in coming back to work, employers should focus on the following three areas:

  • providing timely and accurate information to staff prior to each stage of the recovery process
  • delivering evidence-based best practice support to the right people at the right time
  • focusing on good leadership skills that create safe and supportive workplace environments for continued economic survival, the wellbeing of staff and the community at large.

The four phases of recovery

The review also found that the recovery process is likely to be cyclical and occur in four phases:

  1. pre-return to workplace (restrictions in place)
  2. immediate return to the workplace (restrictions lifted)
  3. mid-term (three to six months post-event)
  4. long-term (one-year post-event).

COVID-19 Recovery Employer Toolkit

To help businesses plan for and manage their employees' safety and wellbeing, we developed a COVID-19 Recovery Employer Toolkit, a four-part toolkit to match the four phases of recovery.

Supporting employers: defining and transitioning the workforce following a pandemic

Part 1 of the toolkit (PDF 0.7MB), focuses on the 'pre-return to workplace' phase of recovery, helping employers to plan and prepare for a safe return to the workplace within the context of COVID-19.

In this phase, employers are recommended to identify roles and practices which are key to helping employees feel safe in returning to their workplaces (for example, sourcing hand sanitiser stations and arranging increased cleaning demonstrates infection control). The people responsible for these practices could be organised into a team, such as a working committee. Identifying and communicating any changed work practices will also be important during this phase.

Supporting employees within the workplace

Part 2 of the toolkit (PDF 0.4MB), was developed in consultation with Beyond Blue and is designed to help organisations ensure the health and safety of employees once they have returned to the workplace (which may include a mix of employees working in your workplace or working from home).

In this immediate return phase, organisations should follow four key areas:

  1. Review: Consider what you're already doing and have available. Collect relevant data, feedback received and existing policies, procedures and supports.
  2. Reflect: Identify what your workforce needs. Healthy and safe workplaces protect against risks to mental health, build a positive workplace culture, and support their people. Participation, communication, and feedback are key to help identify risks and solutions.
  3. Plan: Update or develop an approach or action plan to address current risks and prevention measures.
  4. Act: Bring your plan to life—share changes in your organisation, including clear leadership commitment, clear communication, and available support.

In the mid-term and long-term recovery phases, organisations should reflect and re-evaluate their traditional ways of working and consider the enduring impacts of COVID-19 for employees and workplace dynamics.

Tracking work and health outcomes

Understanding how the pandemic has altered people's work and health will be critical for future prevention and return-to-work strategies for employers across the nation.

Through the icare Foundation, we're supporting a Monash University study to track the employment and health outcomes for Australians who have lost work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 Work and Health Study will run over six to 12 months to compare four groups of people—those who have lost their jobs, been stood down, those who have less work but are still employed, and people who are unaffected.

Early findings from the study show that respondents in the lost job, stood down and working less groups are two to two-and-a-half times more likely to experience psychological distress and have a higher likelihood of reporting below average physical health.

Unsurprisingly, the accommodation and food services industry has a larger proportion of respondents in the lost job and stood down groups.

Work status is also shown to be a critical link to psychological impact.

As the study evolves, changes in the way people work during and after COVID-19 will become clearer, as well as the impacts these changes have on health, safety and productivity.

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