The COVID-19 outbreak has challenged workplaces around the country, testing the robustness of existing workplace standards and individual expectations. In forcing workers out of the workplace, to continue working in their homes, employers had to quickly turn their minds to whether their internal systems and policies supported remote working. Whilst this alert is not directly related to the operation of the law in Australia, it does have a natural link to your obligations as an employer. The soft skills considered go hand in hand with the considerations of managing the health and safety of your team and minimizing the chance of disputes and claims for workplace injury and illness arising from the changed circumstances in the workplace. Links to resources are highlighted.

Now the time has come for employers to consider the COVID-19 recovery. We have learned through COVID-19 that whilst we can technically do office-based activities outside of the office, we are social creatures and still need to maintain personal connection for teamwork, project focus and quality outcomes. Before returning your team to the workplace, a thorough risk assessment is necessary to ensure that your organisation complies with its workplace health and safety obligations. A COVID-19 risk assessment should consider:

  • How to achieve/maintain physical distancing;
  • Good hygiene practices;
  • Cleaning and disinfecting the workplace;
  • Any impacts requiring changes to emergency plans;
  • What information will be provided to workers;
  • New or changed risks arising from COVID-19, for example, mental health or psychological stressors, customer aggression, high work demand, or working in isolation;
  • How vulnerable workers will be protected;
  • Monitoring and reporting of possible symptoms of COVID-19;
  • Responding to a suspected or diagnosed case of COVID-19 in the workplace; and
  • How and when the controls will be evaluated.

As part of the risk assessment process it may be necessary to consult, cooperate and coordinate with neighbouring businesses, contractors, landlords or tenants about fulfilling work health and safety duties.

Work Health and Safety

Safe Work Australia has provided a range of COVID-19 resources to assist employers manage their health safety obligations in relation to the virus. Further issues for you to consider are:

  • How will you ensure the health and safety of your staff in the workplace and the journey to and from work;
  • How will you quantify and manage the real risks;
  • How can you get property owners and co-tenants to take responsibility for managing shared environments; and
  • How quickly and effectively can you respond to possible outbreaks in your workplace.

Safe Work Australia has prepared:

  • National COVID-19 Safe Workplace Principles;
  • Work health and safety guidance for COVID-19;
  • Information about:
    • Duties under WHS laws;
    • Worker’s rights;
    • Guidance about vulnerable workers;
    • Cleaning;
    • Working from home; and
    • Mental health guidance.

Coupled with the Queensland state government’s resources around health management, restrictions, recovery roadmap and managing related issues, there is a thorough suite of tools available for employers to manage their obligations and for employees to understand their accountabilities.

Managing the return to work

The disconnected nature of remote work has presented challenges for some in managing staff effectively and for employee mental health, keeping in mind that psychological injuries are considered under workers compensation legislation in each state. Reintroducing workers into the workplace will present further challenges for both employees and employers and could pose a risk of psychological injury if not properly managed. Some people struggled with the isolation of working from home, now others will struggle with the reintegration process. As an employer, you are likely struggling with further economic issues that make employee fears fade into insignificance in your mind. However, the way you communicate to and manage your team through this time will have a lasting effect on your business operations. 

There are many resources available for employers to access, as they prepare for and manage the re-entry of their teams into the workplace. Accessing those resources, understanding them and applying them where possible, will help you through the transition period and reduce the risks of disputes and WHS issues.

What the organisational psychologists say

Whilst employers didn’t have the opportunity to plan the transition into working from home, they do have the time and opportunity to plan how their staff and operations transition back to ‘normal’, keeping in mind that ‘normal’ may have changed.

Now that the adrenaline has worn off, the effects of stress are likely making themselves felt on you and your team. The fact that we do not have control over what will happen can be frustrating and limits what we can do to return to normal. It is important to understand that the current situation will influence mental health and resilience, meaning that many people are demonstrating heightened reactions to changes.

From a mental health perspective, health services have reported:

  • 39% of people working from home have reported high or very high levels of stress;
  • There has been a 75% increase in online searches for help with domestic violence during COVID-19 restrictions;
  • Kids Helpline has received over 50% more calls for assistance than the same time last year;
  • Lifeline has received over 25% more calls for assistance than the same time last year;
  • Beyond Blue has received 60% more calls for assistance than the same time last year; and
  • Mental health experts have forecast a 25 – 50% increase in suicides that could continue for 5 years, depending on the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reassess workplace culture

Now is an ideal time to reassess your workplace culture. Have any positive changes come out of the recent experience? Have you used new communication styles that have led to improved teamwork and responsiveness? Have you and your team been more patient and compassionate, leading to better working relationships? Have you had a chance to get to know the people you work with and discover new potential? Those changes can be retained and developed as you transfer back to the workplace.

Organisational psychologists (OPs) are suggesting that your business could benefit from the recent experiences by applying your new knowledge and changing the way you do things to engage your staff more effectively. You may have also gained loyalty from your team because you demonstrated compassion for them in a time of need. The investments you made in your team over recent weeks could change the way your business operates as we transition out of COVID-19.

Employers have an opportunity to review training and update their employees on work health and safety management and to develop a robust change management plan should similar circumstances arise in the future. OPs suggest that you can:

  • Build trust through honesty, relentless transparency and prompt communication;
  • Provide clear information tailored to different areas of the business;
  • Be clear about what is changing and what is not; and
  • Share authentic learnings,

with a reminder that over-communicating during change is better than under-communicating.

There are some tools available for employers to access to help manage the workplace challenges, such as:

Australian Government ComCare:Supporting Others in Times of Uncertainty ; Transition back to usual workplaces
Australian Psychological Society:Maintaining employee engagement during COVID-19 ;
Managing hazards to employee mental health during COVID-19
Safe Work Australia: National COVID-19 safe workplace principles

When you are managing the return to the workplace for you, your employees and clients, some of the things you will need to consider as reasonably possible impacts are:

  • Public transport concerns (self or family)
  • School staggered start/finish times
  • Impact of clusters/outbreaks
  • Further lockdowns
  • High anxiety (even anger) about return to office (employees uncertain about risks)
  • Pre-existing mental health issues being exacerbated by work changes and stress
  • Vulnerable populations being exposed to the risk of illness
  • Defining a ‘sick day’ where there may be ongoing caring responsibilities  

Understanding the key provisions from the National Employment Standards, any applicable modern award or enterprise agreement will also be significant as they may impose requirements to consult staff about changes to their work.

Flexible Work Arrangements

Before you issue a blanket direction for staff to return to work, be prepared for some push-back. Many employees have developed a pattern of work that has resulted in the much-touted work/life balance and they may fight a return to pre-COVID-19 operations.

Vulnerable employees will also resist returning to the workplace if they would be seriously affected by COVID-19 infection. Some workers have been advised that it will not be safe for them to physically attend the workplace until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed. Their employers need to consider: if there is capacity to allow those staff to continue working from home; what will be the deciding factors for granting long term work from home arrangements; and how will their performance be monitored.

You should be clear about why you need your team entirely in the office. Consider whether you can introduce scheduling to reduce over-crowding, both in the workplace and on public transport if you do need people physically present.

Developing workplace policies that genuinely reflect the needs of the business, including your capacity to monitor staff, will assist to protect your organisation from claims and will form the foundation of your decision making in relation to your expectations of your employees. Creating your own ‘roadmap’ will help everyone understand what is planned and what their part is in the process, which is an essential consideration when the court or commission assesses the reasonableness of your management actions. Be assured, everyone has a responsibility to ensure a safe return to work.

If you need to form workplace policies or better understand your WHS and performance management responsibilities, the Active Law team can assist you. You can reach us at reception@activelaw.com.au or on (07) 3160 000.


Disclaimer – Reliance on Content
The material distributed is general information only. The information supplied is not and is not intended to be, legal or other professional advice, nor should it be relied upon as such. You should seek legal or professional advice in relation to your specific situation.