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How managers will make workplaces safe again

Eugene Farrell, Chair - Employee Assistance Professionals Association
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The post-pandemic return to work has been less like the end of a crisis than entry into a whole new world of work, fractured and unstable.

Physical changes have played only a relatively small part. In its advice, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has stressed that in order to provide a safe workplace employers need to think beyond the rules and guidance of compliance, providing physical barriers, screens and markings for social distancing. Most of all they need to create a place of psychological safety. Because physical changes don’t make people feel safe, quite the opposite – they are all part of an unsettling, alienating landscape. In this unfamiliar new environment, employees have to trust their employer, their colleagues and visitors from outside this bubble to be doing all the right things to ensure their wellbeing. Very different attitudes to social distancing, to health and safety in general, make for a stressful mix.

A workforce willing and able to be adaptable and work through more change and risks and challenges has become an essential pillar to the resilience of organisations. That means the line manager is a key figure for building a culture of psychological safety: the human connection who translates organisational needs into the actual everyday experience of roles, responsibilities and rewards, but whose attention needs to be re-balanced away from efficiency and outputs towards wellbeing and resilience.

Through lockdown, line management was tested by the sudden shift to remote working and managing the furlough process. But they also benefited, to an extent, from the sense of community generated by adversity. A survey by Cigna Europe in May 2020 suggested that the physical isolation caused by lockdown measures led to most people feeling closer to their colleagues than ever before. Nine out of ten employees said staying in touch digitally by video calls and messaging had encouraged warmer relationships – highlighting the importance of good communications and conversations to working lives. The novelty period has passed and managers can’t simply return to old practices and attitudes. Most managers are used to seeing someone in front of them, and managing remote teams may well require new skills, such as learning to hear subtle changes in employees through telephone contact, looking for cues on video calls and carefully observing behaviours.

Retaining a sense of trust and safety is difficult for every employee, whether they’ve always been working or only going back to their workplace now. Nothing can be assumed. For the key workers who took on the burden of risk of working through the pandemic period there has been a change in status. Once the celebrated heroes, they may well find themselves having to continue to take higher levels of risk but without feeling the same recognition and support. Those who had been feeling safe at home, working or furloughed, are feeling newly exposed and vulnerable. Managers of public-facing employees also have to consider all the aspects of wider risk control, monitoring public behaviour and compliance and the employees concerns and worries that they may be exposed.

Organisations as a whole need to be ready to demonstrate they are not a machine, just designed for outputs and efficiency, but are thinking about ‘being human’. Business leaders at the CIPD’s Festival of Work last month all pointed to the future imperative of this idea. Natasha Adams, chief people officer at Tesco, for example, discussed how the spread of virtual working and online communications had put far more emphasis on the need for human leadership and human qualities.

In order to build resilience, many employers will be thinking in terms of their cost base, potential adoption of AI and autonomous systems, their adaptability. But ultimately resilience is still dependent on the people involved – how they work together, deal with change, with stress – and the culture of wellbeing should be top of the list for attention. Managing remote teams takes more time. This is not the time for micro management but for trust and relationships. More regular check-ins are needed, more effort to get to know each individual team member and to ensure communication is happening both up and down. Praise needs to be seen, and gratitude practiced all the time. Who’s in genuine need of concessions, who’s really struggling and in need of support? It’s a minefield for line managers and HR. That’s where professional, independent support from services like Employee Assistance Programmes is so important.

Managers having more patience, understanding and empathy isn’t the answer in itself. The new normal comes with its own grey areas and confusion. How far can employers give leeway to staff who expect more time off for absence or family responsibilities? Or those who are challenging new ways of working rules or having to take on extra duties? A Mind Gym survey of 2,000 UK employees in June 2020 highlighted how around a quarter of employees admitted to “getting away with” working more than two hours’ less each day while working from home, for example. In the same week, another survey has suggested the opposite: NordVPN found that among its clients, staff were typically working 11 hours a day. Instability means more potential for grievances and conflict and managers need to be able to make judgments on what’s reasonable. Managers, though, can’t be and shouldn’t be acting as counsellors – there’s too great a friction in terms of their primary role.  

In this context, EAPs clearly have an important job to do in being an independent and impartial source of guidance and advice, allowing employees to talk openly. On one level that means professionals able to untangle complex bundles of issues around health, finance, relationships, stress. But EAPs are increasingly playing a wider role in supporting managers, giving them the training needed to recognise and understand problems around psychological wellbeing, and to provide the most appropriate forms of support. Health and wellbeing throughout the extended  post-pandemic period is going to need careful observation. We know from experience that some people may work through sickness for fear of job loss, while others may succumb to the pressure that a downturn brings. Managers are going to need all their skills to look out for colleagues and ensure they look after themselves.

The extent of the new challenges mean this relationship needs to go a stage further, with EAPs involved with helping organisations to develop preventative measures, identify and address particular threats to employees mental health and wellbeing, and build organisational resilience.


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