Martina Donohoe, Director of Quality & Safety, Aramark Northern Europe.
As the UK cautiously begins reopening the economy, many organisations are now moving into the next phase of their response to Covid-19. Despite rapid adjustments and adaptions from the business community and our incredibly resilient people, one of the most critical challenges businesses need to solve now is evaluating how to bring our people back to work safely.
For employers, it should go without saying that keeping employees safe is not just an obligation, but the primary concern. And with the increased complexity of return to work, we must be exhaustive as well as holistic.
Safety should become a normal topic of conversation within the workplace – now and always – and simple things like clearly structured employee communications, consistently delivered, with clear opportunities for dialogue and feedback from your people will be key.
Regardless of business size, it is the employer’s job to find, interpret and implement the most up to date health and safety guidance from the WHO and the government. We have to ensure a comprehensive safety audit of the workplace itself. We need to focus on testing and checking machinery or equipment for the first time in months. We have to consider and review appropriate staffing levels for shared spaces. And we must ensure Covid-19 signage, floor markers and hand-sanitiser are suitably available for staff and customers.
What many businesses might miss in all this exhaustive compliance, however, is that companies also must consistently check that all staff, customers, contractors and suppliers understand and trust in all the measures taken.
Physical Safety is not Enough
Many businesses, in eagerness to re-open and meet Covid-19 response measures, might forget that employee and customer wellbeing is not just about physical risk of danger, but inclusive of mental health strain, anxiety or worry during this time. At Aramark, this second part of our Safety Strategy is covered by the term ‘psychological safety’, but you might think of it as empathy and trust-building.
COVID-19 has touched the lives of people like nothing our generation has ever seen.
Uncertainty and unpredictability can understandably create an unhealthy amount of fear and stress, and our employees, their families or their close friends may have experienced a particularly traumatic time. Some people may have lost loved ones, been ill themselves or know someone who got sick, while others will likely have been influenced by the infodemic that warped our long-standing perception of safety in our day to day lives.
Now, more than ever, employee welfare and mental health has to be at the forefront of reopening planning – to understand that it’s not enough for workplaces to be safety compliant, but that we have to provide reassurance to employees and to build the trust and understanding among the workforce in the safety measures we have taken.
Education and Communication
If we are to meaningfully create safe working environments, employers can start with education and communication.
There’s a clear need to educate supervisors and managers to be aware of the signs of emotional distress, and to encourage staff to seek treatment when necessary. One program that is offered by Aramark, our Covid-19 eLearning programme, highlights these skills and provides all the relevant resources and supports relevant to individual needs.
The programme also includes content on health and wellbeing, and specifically acknowledges concerns employees may have at every predicted phase of re-mobilisation; and, finally, covers all updated physical safety guidance as it relates to Covid-19 protective measures such as hand and respiratory hygiene, social distancing and workplace hygiene.
We cannot under-estimate the psychological impact that this pandemic, and infodemic, has had on the wellbeing of our people. In the people-first organisation I proudly work in, we try to offer some certainty in consistently acknowledging the uncertainty that surrounds us all at this time.
Whatever happens in the weeks and months ahead, it seems likely that the experience of living through a pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on the way we work, and how our workplaces function. Returning to work after a pandemic is new territory for all of us, but providing timely and practical information, coupled with emotional support resources, will ensure businesses can progress and succeed no matter what lies ahead.