By Paul Cutrone and Amanda Cavanough
Seyfarth Synopsis: The novel coronavirus pandemic has put a spotlight on the mental health of workers. This blog was originally posted in Seyfarth Australia’s Workplace Law & Strategy blog.
The crisis posed immediate and acute challenges for organisations and workers. In an extremely short period of time, we have all had to navigate periods of isolation and loss of social interactions, new ways of working, constantly changing health messages and much more. The situation is unprecedented in our lifetime. One “silver lining” of the crisis, however, seems to be an uptick in awareness about and action taken in relation to mental health in the workplace.
The government has recognised that Australians need additional resources and support to “flatten the curve” of a mental health crisis while tackling the virus and has implemented a number of measures to achieve this goal.
In the context of work, there has long been an obligation on organisations to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the mental health of workers. Officers of organisations have a duty to take reasonable steps to exercise due diligence to ensure that the organisation complies with its health and safety obligations. Workers themselves also owe a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, and to take reasonable care that their acts or omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of others. Current guidance from SafeWork Australia points to several psychosocial hazards relating specifically to Covid-19 that need to be considered, including isolated work.
With this in mind, many organisations have stepped up their mental health and wellbeing programs and tailored them to the situation at hand during the Covid-19 lockdown, based on expert guidance and in consultation with workers. We have seen organisations implement some great initiatives including:
- enhanced Employee Assistance Programs and counselling sessions;
- free or discounted online meditation, resilience training or yoga;
- sharing information about the best mental health resources to deal with particular issues affecting workers; and
- finding new ways to regularly share and “connect” with team members via technology.
Here at Seyfarth, the firm has implemented a range of measures to combat isolation, stress and anxiety. For instance, partnering with the Resilience Project to deliver a 10 part digital wellbeing series. As employees of the firm, we have found the evidence based practical strategies about nutrition, exercise and stress extremely useful and will continue to apply them as “normal” life resumes.
As restrictions ease and the return to work process begins, many risks to health and safety may remain. Until there is a solution to the health crisis in the form of a cure or vaccine, those that can work from home will likely continue to do so and office spaces will not look or operate in the way they did previously. However, every workplace has a different risk profile. It will be important to adopt a risk management based approach and continue to innovate and tailor solutions to the needs of your workforce even as we return to “normal” work. We are excited to see how Australian workplaces continue to lean into this challenge.
Those with questions or concerns about any of these issues or topics are encouraged to reach out to the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s International Employment Law or Labor & Employment Teams.