Employee wellness specialist Dr Tshidi Gule shares practical guidelines for managing the highly stressful and turbulent climate facing the industry in the time of COVID-19. Why are upholding the mental and physical safety of employees and supporting people at the forefront of this challenge?
“The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life on every level and we can all attest to this reality,” says Dr Gule, an employee wellness specialist and the Chief Medical Officer of the MLI Group. “And yet, as they say, the show must go on. So, how do we navigate the precarious and uncertain environment we now work in?”
Dr Gule is spending her time on helping businesses to answer this question; all in an effort to bring employees back to work and maintain every individual’s physical and mental health going forward.
Listen to Dr Gule sharing her advice
In the podcast that follows, Dr Gule shares key insights to assist employers to make sound decisions in preparing the workplace to receive employees and adapting to workplace demands brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Did you know that this podcast is a part of the Discovery COVID-19 podcast series? Find this podcast and many others on Discovery’s COVID-19 podcast hub. Our workplace-related podcasts are listed under COVID-19 and the changing world of work.
COVID-19, classed as a group-4 biological hazard
The Occupational Health and Safety Act (1993) is the first guiding principle on how to approach back-to-work readiness during COVID-19 and ensuring the health and safety of employees. Dr Gule also explains that COVID-19 is classed as a group-4 biological hazard. This means that it can cause severe disease or hazard to an exposed employee, that it can spread to the community and that there is no treatment or prophylaxis (treatment given or action taken to prevent disease) for the COVID-19 virus at present.
AIM: Assessment, intervention and monitoring
Dr Gule recommends a specific approach to safety and support in the workplace called AIM:
“Whether we are dealing with remote or on-site employees, we can align navigating the most critical areas of back-to-work readiness to AIM,” says Dr Gule. “For every process undertaken, we go through a process of assessment, then intervention and them monitoring of the outcomes."
AIM applied to employee physical health and safety
“Historically, our focus has been on the safety of on-site employees, but now our focus needs to include remote employees. On-site safety protocols are the responsibility of occupational health and safety (OHS) officers. They are available nationwide to assist employers to assess the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the work place, advise on infrastructure adjustments and interventions required to lessen risk of exposure, and to create monitoring and evaluating structures and networks to create and retain a low-risk environment for COVID-19,” says Dr Gule. “I strongly recommend that employers appoint the most appropriate medical professionals to do their risk assessment, to make recommendations and where necessary institute them.
- Interested in finding out how Discovery has navigated the process of keeping staff safe through COVID-19 and navigated bringing employees back into the workplace? Here’s our interview with David Pierre Eugene, Discovery’s Head of Corporate Real Estate.
Dr Gule continues, “We also need to be cognisant of outbreaks of COVID-19 in districts where we operate or and surrounding areas. If your company falls within a COVID-19 hotspot, you may need to have periods where you remove employees from a particular office or allow them to work at home to limit the spread of COVID-19 – which will be a national priority in the coming months.”
Next, employers must define the people who will form their COVID-19 task team and who will address employee concerns on safety in the workplace. “Then identify the OHS officers who will screen employees who come into the workplace for symptoms of COVID-19 and assist employees who test positive for COVID-19.
“This brings me to remote versus on-site workplace design,” says Dr Gule. “There is a need for high-risk employees to stay at home. These individuals should not be prevented from earning within the same capacity as they did when they worked on-site. However, depending on the business sector, employers may require employees to be on-site to perform their role so the transition to remote work should be discussed with these employees and all conditions clarified upfront.”
“Screening employees for symptoms of COVID-19 as they enter the workplace is one of the biggest changes to on-site culture to hit us,” says Dr Gule. “It is mandatory that, every day when employees enter and exit the workplace, there are screening protocols – carried out by medical professionals – in place for COVID-19. These processes aim to limit the risk that individuals who have contracted COVID-19 will come into the building.
AIM applied to employee mental health safety
Why is mental safety now as much of a priority as physical safety?
“COVID-19 environment studies show that the pandemic has resulted in a doubling of mental health conditions such as anxiety and acute stress disorder in employees,” says Dr Gule. “Any mental health distress impacts on productivity and prolonged mental health distress among employees can profoundly affect a company’s bottom line.
- Employee health is key to determining a company’s productivity, growth and potential. In this podcast (recorded just before global COVID-19 outbreak), Azania Mosaka speaks to Nonkululeko Pitje (Discovery’s Head of Employee Health Solutions) and Dr Tshidi Gule to explore solutions that boost employee wellness in general.
“The pandemic has disrupted every employee’s ability to navigate normal life. Also, it cannot be assumed that employees are adjusting to these disruptions. They may suddenly be facing more interpersonal and relational distress too, so a crisis management channel that allows employees to feel support – such as an Employee Assistance Programme or online psychological support channel – is key. Make it a priority to communicate the existence of these channels to employees. Emphasis access through a direct communication line, company webinar or by deploying crisis management officers to handle mental health issues, always setting out a clear road map of how employees can get help when they are going through seasons of stress, depression and anxiety and the like. A crisis-management channel strategy for employees in distress will be the most proactive thing employers can do to manage the mental health of employees and also mitigate the impact of mental health conditions on productivity, performance and sustainability of business, ” says Dr Gule.
Mental health education is also an important way to make sure that employees understand their own responsibility and accountability when it comes to taking care of their mental health. There are many support channels that you can put in place to drive this point home to employees.2. How well do we understand our employees’ home environments?
Many employees have worked remotely since the onset of alert level five restrictions for COVID-19. “How many organisations have taken the time to investigate whether each employee’s home environment is conducive to productivity and work?” asks Dr Gule. “It’s key that employers take into account that employees come from different socio-economic backgrounds and living conditions and some may not be able to do their work at home, though they are working from home. This is fundamental to understand. Where employees are really struggling, employers may need to identify new spaces, close to an employee’s place of residence where they can go and work. Overlooking this can lead to many performance-management issues and this can lead to employment and labour disputes. We cannot assume an employee can perform their work in the same way remotely as they do in the office.”3. Make sure that education around workplace safety is ongoing
Dr Gule advises that the continuous safety training offered to employees must cover the correct use of personal protective equipment as it relates to each workplace and the importance of social distancing. “Business leaders should continue to promote where possible, remote meetings and the reduction of business travel to the bare minimum; especially in seasons where COVID-19 cases peak. Employers must also continue to provide up-to-date information around employee-related COVID-19 facts and risky behaviour.”
Creating the support frameworks required to navigate the COVID-19 climate.
Here are Dr Gule’s top insights on reinventing, reimaging and reengineering workplace culture and processes to meet the pressures of the COVID-19 climate:
- Employers must re-imagine our work culture. For many leaders, work has taken place in a specific environment and way for a long time. All of this has now been disrupted and it is uncertain how long the changes will persist. Adaptability is key and we should be discussing changes at Exco, with middle and line managers. Take those employees who fall into the high-risk category, for severe illness linked to COVID-19, such as those who have:
Protecting them has necessitated a redesign of work culture to move high-risk employees to safer environments. Employers must consider factors, such as:
- How many hours employees need to spend on-site versus working at home and
- Who will carry out work that high-risk employees, who have been asked to work at home, were responsible for on-site?
- Employers must re-think the way in which we communicate with employees. “Most communication is centralised. Now, with employees working remotely – some having no access even to a phone – communication must be re-engineered. Communication is the backbone of performance and there must be investment in making sure every employee is able to connect with the company – telephonically, virtually or physically. Employers will have to dig deeper into their pockets to ensure that high-value employees have access to communication means and also consider the needs of employees who are financially disadvantaged when it comes to data access and hardware support.”
- Employers must re-evaluate performance indicators. This does not mean reducing the level of output required from employees. However, it does require an understanding that the COVID-19 climate has brought about change that affected employees’ reaching certain targets. Employers will benefit greatly from a good look at and revision of performance indicators; at least over July, August and September 2020. They can then evaluate their employees’ situations again after that.
- Employers must re-think contract discussions and retrenchment support. Many companies are finding themselves unable to retain every single member of the company. Many employers need to make a decision on who stays and goes. However, they must do this legally and ethically. Communication and support to employees who are retrenched (let go) is key. It does not only show good will from the employer, but also a level of humanity and compassion about the COVID-19 climate that has led to these decisions.
Upholding the safety of and support towards our people – a priority
Dr Gule concludes: “I hope these guidelines will guide and direct employers on the way forward and give practical and effective ways of managing the “new normal” under which we are all operating. I really want to remind employers that this climate is highly stressful and turbulent for the industry as a whole. Every captain of industry has very important and difficult decisions to make at this time. However, upholding the mental and physical safety of employees and supporting our people – our biggest assets – should remain at the forefront of this uphill walk. Let’s work to navigate this climate successfully and remain as strong and resilient as we can.”
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