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  • 07 Jun 2021

An enhanced duty of care

In the post-Covid world, employers must pay closer attention to staff well-being

In the post-Covid world, employers must pay closer attention to staff well-being

There can be little doubt that the past 12 months or so have been a very different and challenging time for many in the label industry. Some end-user sectors have done better than others, but on/off lockdowns, furlough schemes, working from home initiatives, sudden changes to the way employees work, materials and product supply issues, Covid test and trace, self-isolation, travel restrictions, and much more, have all provided some unprecedented demands and requirements on label converters and industry suppliers.
 
It should not be forgotten that employers have a fundamental duty of care for the physical and mental health and well-being of their workers.
 
Many employees have had to make quite significant changes to their daily lives, some at relatively short notice, including how and where they work – whether that’s hours, location, or even being able to do their job at all. Nobody knows how long this situation will last and, although there may be glimmers of hope for things to start improving, it’s clear that the impact around the world will be felt for many months, maybe years, to come.
 
Label businesses and their employees have been forced to adapt quickly to the challenges they have been presented during the periods of lockdown. They have often been faced with making quite tough decisions, and perhaps having to initiate or plan for a variety of different outcomes as lockdowns, supply challenges and the spread of Covid that has rapidly progressed to impact on pretty much all countries.
 
However, with global vaccinations now increasing and lockdowns proving to be largely successful, many label businesses and their employees will hopefully be looking towards some gradual return towards normality over the coming months. But what will the new normal be?
 
Employees that have spent many months working from home or on furlough may be concerned or reluctant to once again be traveling to a workplace every day. A workplace they may not have even seen in a very long time. Some will undoubtedly want to know whether their employers are changing company thinking about the opportunity to possibly continue with flexible and remote working.
 
How will they react to once again having a line manager watching over them? Have there been changes to the working environment while they were away? Will employees still remember the factory and office safety and health rules and manufacturing practices when they return? Is their workplace Covid safe? As lockdown measures begin to lift, employees will be looking to their employers to provide guidance on these and other matters during
these, still, uncertain times.
 
Most employment legislation usually states that employers have a duty of care. They cannot force employees to return to work if it is unsafe. There is therefore a duty on employers and their HR professionals, and the employees themselves, to ensure that the workplace is safe – especially if changes to working practices have been implemented – their role in the health and safety process, and the need for everyone to be involved and work together in making those decisions.
 
Decisions about returning to work should certainly be made in a non-discriminatory way. A new risk assessment for a return to non-lockdown working conditions should perhaps be prepared which links clinical (Covid) vulnerability risks to more specific workplace safety risks. There is also a need to be aware of the risks of increased workplace tensions and disputes that may arise from changes to workplace practices and working arrangements, and
from fear of infection on return.
 
Going back to how employees and label companies exactly operated a year or so ago is probably not going to happen. A year or more on from the first lockdowns there will certainly be things that are different. Adjusting to these changes can, and most likely will, present challenges to label company employers and their workforce. Challenges that may now also have to include increased emphasis on things such as mental health and well-being.
 
Impact
 
Apart from the working environment, there have been numerous studies and reports in recent months about the impact that lockdown, job insecurity, financial worries, not being able to travel, work, eat or drink out, socialize, meet family and friends – even work colleagues – have had on mental health and well-being. Depression and mental illness have become far more common in society and, sadly, there have been increased cases of suicide.
 
It should not be forgotten that employers have a fundamental duty of care for the physical and mental health and well-being of their workers. However, recent research has shown that only around half of all companies have employee well-being on their senior leaders’ agendas. This needs to change. Health and well-being in a post-Covid world needs to be more of a core element of any HR strategy, and more central to the way an organization operates.
 
As already mentioned, this has been especially critical during the global health emergency that the pandemic has created, where many employees find themselves working remotely, isolated from friends, family and colleagues for long periods of time, and anxious about their health and well-being.
 
There will certainly be some employees that may still be worried about catching Covid if they start to travel and mix with colleagues again in the factory, particularly if they come into contact with elderly relatives at home. Should they come to the plant if they have a cough or a temperature and, if they do come with possible colleague perceived Covid symptoms, what will the management do. Will they be sent home and told to self-isolate for at least 10 days from when the symptoms started?
 
Certainly an increasing number of medium to larger companies are already introducing their own internal Covid testing programs at the workplace, which focuses tests on symptomatic individuals. Remember however, it is a voluntary decision for employers to run testing programs for their staff but, if done correctly, testing can provide confidence to both workforce and customers in the workplace and may help to protect and enable business continuity.
 
There are a few different types of swab or saliva Covid-19 tests that can be used at work, as well as pulse oximeters that measure the saturation of oxygen in red blood cells that can be attached to fingers, forehead, or ears, and simple devices for temperature testing. None of the tests are particularly expensive. Employers considering or running Covid testing programs can nowadays obtain guidance from a number of organizations on the legal obligations and best practice to follow.
 
As lockdown measures begin to lift and employees start to return to work – full or part time – they will be looking to their employers to provide an updated risk assessment and to provide guidance on any changed working practices (safe distancing, sanitizing, wearing of masks, screens, etc), possible Covid testing procedures, new or altered safety procedures, improved health measures and today, also including enhanced mental well-being.
 
This later area has become even more important as we move to a post-Covid world. Recent research has highlighted that less than a quarter of employees said their company regularly engaged with them on issues of mental health, while a staggering 14 percent of employees had experienced suicidal thoughts and around 15 percent said they had mental health problems in the workplace. Women in full-time employment are nearly twice as likely to have
a common mental health problem as full-time employed men. How do these figures compare to the label industry? Do we know?
 
Well-being
 
In today’s world, the promotion of well-being at work through personalized information and advice, a risk-assessment questionnaire, and possible seminars, workshops and web-based materials, can all help to encourage returning to normalized working become reassuring and more attractive.
 
But what else can the label industry do to make work more attractive as lockdown eases and some kind of normal working returns? Obstacles that may hinder or prevent a return to normal working should be identified, ideally in conversation with employees. Should a return to work or normalized working be
staggered, rather than all arriving on the same day and at the same time? What strategies are being introduced to minimize any ongoing health risks in the workplace?
 
Promoting health is no longer seen as an initiative that yields ‘soft’ results
 
Talking of health risks, many companies perhaps have a small kitchen area for employees to make drinks or prepare snacks. Great. But a recent study found that taps are the most contaminated areas in a kitchen, bin lids carried the highest levels of E-coli, while kettle handles carried more harmful bacteria than a toilet seat. In a post-Covid world greater cleaning attention and sanitizing might be welcomed.
 
Undoubtedly some temporary, medium or longer-term adjustments may need to be made to improve health and well-being in the factory – and explained to employees. Safety, health and well-being may well need to be both an initial and longer-term priority in tomorrow’s label world.
 
Underlining the importance of the areas mentioned above will be of help and encouragement to employees. There is little doubt that placing an emphasis on employee health and well-being contributes greatly to an employee’s overall engagement within the company. Promoting health is no longer seen as an initiative that yields ‘soft’ results. Instead, health promotion can ensure that employees actually want and like to be at work. Over time, this has
a significant impact on the company’s performance. Often health improves many areas of the business. Areas that not only improve production, but help to improve profitability as well.
 
To reiterate, employee confidence and acceptance of a new normal in the post-Covid world will come if they all are engaged, listened to, and their concerns acted on and, if changes to working arrangements or shift patterns are being proposed, do they meet the principles of employment law. If not, the changes may end-up creating disputes, ill-feeling, resentment, or even a possible breach of contract. Consultation and discussion are key to creating a work
culture that promotes health and well-being through all aspects of their lives.
 
Various studies have shown that happier and healthier employees regularly outperform those who are in organizations which do little or nothing to promote health and well-being. This is important to note, because for a long time many managements believed that investing in employee health and well-being schemes would be a waste of money, yielding little rewards for the company. That is certainly no longer true in modern society.
 
A year or more of Covid restrictions and lockdowns has undoubtedly highlighted the issues of mental health, mental illness, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. How many employers in the label industry have actively engaged with their employees on their ongoing safety, health, welfare and well-being in the past? And how many will be doing so in the new post-Covid world of tomorrow? It’s an interesting and important question.
 
For more Mike Fairley columns, go to: www.labelsandlabeling.com/contributors/michael-fairley

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Fairley is Labels & Labeling's strategic consultant.

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