By Tina Chander, partner at leading Midlands law firm, Wright Hassall (www.wrighthassall.co.uk/expertise/employment-law-and-hr)
Since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, anxiety levels have undoubtedly increased for care home workers, especially as remote working is not an option for those looking after residents.
With the risk of contracting and transmitting the illness far greater for those in constant contact with others, workplace stress is heightened for those work- ing in care homes, so the extended support services offered by Public Health England and other mental health charities should be utilised as much as possible.
From the perspective of employers, it’s important to mitigate stress in the workplace, as failing to do so could result in a slew of workplace personal injury claims. Not only this, but highly stressed workers are a lot less productive than those who are managing their anxiety levels with professional support.
IMPACT ON MENTAL HEALTH
Key triggers identified for work-related stress include workload pressures, workplace interpersonal relationships and changes at work. Given the current economic disruption, job insecurity and social distancing, these factors are likely to be amplified.
Whilst many businesses are struggling with loss of trade and furloughed staff, many others are under enormous pressure to rapidly increase the volume of their services, food production, supply chain logistics, etc., whilst coping with a large influx of new, untrained workers.
For those working in care homes, these anxieties are compounded, as there is a risk of passing on the illness to high-risk residents without knowing. The impact on the workforce can be so severe that businesses should consider some relatively simple steps.
One course of action for businesses to take is to conduct a ‘Stress Risk Assessment’, which will enable them to focus clearly on the newly emerging drivers of stress, whilst taking steps to minimise their impact.
Given the unprecedented scale of upheaval, any existing risk assessment may not be fit for purpose, so performing a new assessment will demonstrate a responsive and flexible attitude toward protecting the workforce.
Many employers may have completed risk assessments during the first lock- down, however conducting a new and updated risk assessment will ensure that employers are able to adapt to any new challenges that may have arisen.
By identifying the causes of stress and trying to deal with them, a business can demonstrate at any later date, that it took reasonable steps and fulfilled its duty of care.
Businesses may implement the following policies: Coronavirus Policy, Flexible Working Policy and a Homeworking Policy.
In addition to this, businesses may wish to consider implementing a Stress at Work Policy, which can provide guidance to employees on how to handle stress at work, seek support from their employer and this can also include details of support services, if necessary.
Not only will this protect the business by implementing procedural changes and providing guidance for the workforce, but it will also provide a level of comfort to the workforce who will recognise the business is responding sensibly and proactively to the crisis.
It also demonstrates the business is paying attention to the needs of its employees and is committed to their health and wellbeing.
Whilst most businesses have implemented a system of remote working, this is not a viable solution for care homes, and so key workers must continue work- ing as normal, with the added risk of spreading or contracting the illness.
Therefore, employers should do everything in their power to ensure the lines of communication between the workforce, managers and HR team are open, so that concerns can be addressed quickly before they develop into much bigger issues.
Dedicating a member of the HR team to different sectors of the business can help by providing employees a direct point of contact should they want to dis- cuss work-related stress.
If claims concerning COVID 19 related stress emerge, the businesses in the strongest position will be those that can demonstrate they took the issue seriously, whilst pointing to a recorded risk assessment and structured engagement with employees throughout.
About the author: Tina Chander is a partner and head of the Employment team at leading Midlands law firm, Wright Hassall and deals with contentious and non- contentious employment law issues. She acts for employers of all sizes from small businesses to large national and international businesses, advising in connection with all aspects of employment tribunal proceedings and appeals.