Reflecting on this time last year, there was much talk about ‘saving Christmas’. What we discovered also was that the cost was to be a January lockdown, with home schooling and stringent social restrictions that made last winter memorable for too many of the wrong reasons.
While at the moment there are mutterings about needing to take steps to avoid ‘Plan B’ or ‘lockdowns’, that unprecedented experience is unlikely to repeat itself.
I will tell anyone who cares to listen that winter 2020/2021 was a historic moment in British social and economic history. British business became, for the first time ever, my public health hero.
When all other aspects of society were locked down, only the workplace was a place of social interaction. It was entirely up to the ingenuity and investment of employers to ensure that their staff did not catch or transmit Covid. As the figures were to show, control of this horrible respiratory disease was achieved by most businesses, the runaway statistics were tamed and, talking to HSE’s Covid-19 inspectors, many employers went above and beyond to protect their workers, their business continuity and public health.
For anyone who falsely categorises employers as ‘just interested in the money’, this is objective proof that this cannot be the case. The cost of Covid measures came out of pockets and stretched overdrafts even at the cost of production efficiency for some. Major organisations kept our infrastructure functioning through the commitment of the workforce and good and innovative leadership, which placed the health of the workforce front and centre.
It highlighted that empowered and properly guided, employers could change the face of public health. It encourages me to believe that, if, in a few months in 2021, almost all employers could drive out an infectious disease that scientists still don’t properly understand, then easy-to-spot, visible and preventable harmful exposures – such as dust and noise – can be eliminated from the workplace, if businesses can just be properly supported and incentivised to do so.
However, as I write, Covid-19 still has a stranglehold on the NHS and is threatening to choke the system and exhaust its workforce. We have to accept Covid is here to stay in one form or another. It adds to flu and colds and other things that circle the globe in their macabre world tour, scooping up the old and vulnerable and leaving malaise and misery in their wake.
These are diseases which are not particularly dangerous in themselves, in that they are unlikely to kill anyone at work, as might a missing machine guard or the absence of a scaffold. But like so many diseases that impact the workplace, their effect is insidious, underhand and destructive.
Impact of seasonal illnesses
While Covid-19 will join bird flu on the business continuity plan and the risk register of many organisations, it’s unlikely that general seasonal illnesses figure greatly in most employers’ general business risk planning.
Nonetheless, they sow random seeds of disruption and their impact is more than days lost through ill health and mistakes made because of having a head full of cold. The real impact of seasonal illnesses is on mental health. They can be the catalyst, cause and consequence of stress, depression and other mental disorders. This may sound like catastrophising, but let me explain.
Seasonal illnesses like flu and now Covid-19 thrive in the winter months. Often this coincides with times of increased demand, when more people might be brought in to work, where they may work in facilities which are not used to accommodating as many people on production lines and in welfare areas. For other industries, contact with the public is increased.
Production, supply and service demands increase and deadlines tighten. All of this requires closer working, longer periods spent working together and more interactions between more people. This is a recipe for increased transmission of respiratory illnesses. Tired and stressed, the human body’s ability to resist infection is also diminished. It’s a perfect time for a virus to spread and infect.
Other seasonal factors come into play, such as weather-related transport disruption, illness in the home requiring more caring requirements for parents and carers, the stress of the season in the run-up to Christmas and financial distress after it.
As workers get ill, then they take time off sick or have to take time off to care for others. The work still has to be done and is displaced onto others, who in turn become more stressed, more exposed and more prone to illness.
Yet, like snow, although they are almost inevitable, very few employers actively plan for the impact of seasonal illnesses. They know that they will land sooner or later and that their impact will cause stress to them as managers and to their teams, but most feel powerless to do anything. Like the fickle finger of fate, we know some or many of our workforce will succumb to flu or Covid-19, but we just hope that they won’t.
If the past 12 months has taught us anything, it is that even people who have been double jabbed can get Covid-19. Not everyone will get a flu jab and many people no longer wear face masks indoors and in crowded settings or practise social distancing. Not even the catastrophe of Covid-19 can transform us into one of those far eastern countries where everyone wears a face mask.
Impact on work capacity
In this case, we have to accept that seasonal illness will impact on business capacity and that it is not going to be possible to turn away work that has been contracted or the vital opportunity to make up lost ground after the pandemic.
However, this year, of all years, after widespread bereavement, home schooling, long Covid, missed holidays, workforce shortages and a panoply of unique pressures, we all need to be mindful of the psychological fragility of our workforce. Regardless of the vogue, mental health is not always susceptible to first aid to patch up problems that have been engrained by debilitating sets of circumstances. Employers need to plan for their own and their teams’ mental health challenges as this winter breaks.
It’s easy to say this, but harder to do. However, a few actions might help:
- Be open in recognising that seasonal illnesses will impact the ability of your organisation and employees to meet demand. Plan for it and know that the solution should not be just to assume that other workers will pick up the slack
- If that is genuinely the only option, then be vigilant, person-focused and humane towards the people who you may need to do an extra shift or work longer or harder. As they adapt to your priorities, adapt to theirs
- Ensure supervisors ask about any external pressures on workers and try so far as possible to enable employees to manage these in a way that reduces stress on them, even if is inconvenient or unusual for the business
- Model good behaviours yourself – don’t make a virtue of over-working, and avoid messaging staff out of hours
- Be an authentic leader by being honest about the stresses you face at work and at home, but don’t inadvertently make them problems for the team who support you
- Ask for help yourself and encourage others to do so
- Forgive easily and take responsibility when things go wrong; but then learn and move on
- Factor in quality rest time for staff
- Get access to health benefits for your team, if you can. Gym discounts and access to online counselling or even some private health policies can help
- Understand that you and your workers are often the most expensive, valuable or irreplaceable assets in your business and that creating the conditions for psychological stress at work is like burning the brakes, steering and clutch on your car all at the same time.
Above all, don’t dismiss a bad cold as malingering or ‘man flu’. Be alert that seasonal illness may be a symptom of a more damaging disease; one that lays low the spirit, detracts from self-worth and removes the very thing that is the very foundation of happiness, skill and industry – namely good mental health.
See HSE’s guidance on managing stress and new Working Minds campaign on supporting good mental health:
See the BOHS Covid-19 guidance hub:
Kevin Bampton is CEO of BOHS (British Occupational Hygiene Society).
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