Globally, workplaces, regardless of industry, are facing a momentous shift. While the pandemic was a catalyst for professionals to reexamine their relationship with work, it has also resulted in structural changes to employee expectations, in what is being referred to as the hybrid paradox.
While choosing how, when, and where work happens is still a top priority for talent recruitment and retention, employers are also now facing mounting pressures to support the physical, psychological, and social health of their workforces.
In the age of Covid-19, we have become acutely aware of the need to protect employees from illness and the benefit of having a comprehensive safety and health culture in place. But how can organizations now balance employees' safety concerns. with the need for flexibility in the return to on-site work, while supporting mental health, human connection, and overall worker well-being?
As the director of Georgia Tech's OSHA Training Institute, Hilarie Warren is familiar with emerging workplace challenges, particularly those relating to the pandemic such as psychological safety and communicable disease transmission. In response to the emerging hybrid workforce, she shares her perspective on the healthy work and workforce, and what it means for the entire safety and health profession – and beyond.
See her take on the most pressing issues below.
As workforces begin to return to work, many are adopting a hybrid approach to working. How can organizations strike a balance between maintaining a safe workplace while protecting an employee’s individual well-being and psychological security?
The “future of work” is THE phrase of 2022. The dynamic changes we have all experienced in the workplace and in our personal lives feel continuous and uncertain – daily, there is new input to integrate into decision making – and it’s exhausting. It’s no surprise that multiple recent studies report companies worldwide are struggling with expectation misalignment, increased stress and anxiety, and how to implement equitable, effective strategies that meet the needs of their diverse workforce. The concept of a “safe workplace” has expanded beyond preventing a deadly fall, hearing loss, or even following OSHA regulations – it’s about feeling valued, heard, and knowing your mental health and well-being are prioritized too.
Even in the years prior to COVID, occupational safety and health professionals were working to understand and measure the impact that certain working conditions and arrangements had on workers and their well-being (including physical, psychological, and social outcomes). The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Total Worker Health program is an approach that integrates work-related protections (in policy and practices) together with health promotion efforts to “advance worker well-being.” This holistic approach to enhancing worker well-being is applicable for small to large employers, and there are published questionnaires to help you get started. It’s important that organizations recognize the need for continued flexibility and adaptability when it comes to working out a framework for the next steps – there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. Some companies and industry sectors never stopped having essential employees on the frontline; whereas others have been remote for over two years. Both scenarios – and all those in between – have impacted employees’ psychological security. Working to actively understand the challenges faced by all tiers of your organization, which may include acknowledging that many hourly, low-wage, minority, and entry-level workers were – and still are – at the highest risk for negative physical and psychological outcomes, will help find an approach that can meet all employee needs.
How does keeping employees safe on the job pay off in health, wellness, retention, and attainment of workers?
Safety and health programs are not meant to be written and stored on a shelf in a dusty corner. They are meant to be reassessed, reviewed, and improved as an integral part of your business strategy. Organizations who are willing to engage in conversation around these topics, foster transparency, ask hard questions, and take action to find and provide feedback contributes to employee wellness and retention. For example, before considering the resumption of in-person classes for our program in 2021, our instructors and staff talked at length about concerns and challenges, investigated cleaning and personal protective equipment protocols, and created policies around room capacities. We worked with facilities management to ensure adequate ventilation and air filtration measures were in place for classrooms, and put options in place to ensure instructors and students alike could move to a remote or alternative option if they ended up having to quarantine or became ill. These efforts were as much about physical health as they were about mental well-being. When an employee can trust that decisions are being made to protect their safety – and the safety and well-being of their families by proxy – stress is reduced and job satisfaction improves.
A recent Pew Research Center survey conducted by those studying the ongoing Great Resignation identified that while low pay and limited advancement opportunities are significant contributors to people leaving the workforce, another primary cited factor is feeling disrespected or devalued at work. I would put employee safety and well-being squarely into that category. When people are anxious to come to work – whether it’s fear of COVID or fear of workplace violence or any number of hazards – they are going to experience higher stress and decreased performance. They are not going to bring their best selves to the job, and that can have far-reaching ramifications. Add in fear of retaliation, potentially lost wages, and lack of access to PTO or those in alternative work arrangements – if organizations are not addressing these critical safety, health, and wellness concerns I would argue they are at risk for talent retention and recruitment. People want to work for organizations that value and respect their contributions and perspectives, and if they don't experience that feeling, they might look elsewhere.
When it comes to health and safety, many organizations often operate reactively. When is the best time to implement new safety measures within your organization?
The sooner, the better. I encourage organizations to start with the conversation first, inclusive of stakeholders from every level: management, supervisors, people leaders, operations, and the front line – and review potential risks, severity outcomes, and available resources for control strategies. Consult with an occupational/environmental safety and health professional if you don’t have one on staff; these individuals can help organizations identify where and how to start to achieve the identified goals. The best outcomes are when the measures implemented have buy-in from all affected parties; giving employees an opportunity to be part of the decision-making process is a key component we look for when assisting companies with safety and health strategies. Those are the measures that have longevity and high employee adherence – and prevent the “fizzle out” that can occur with reactionary action.
Looking into the future, employers must reframe how they think about workplace safety, health, and wellness. When companies jump into implementing new safety measures reactively, sometimes there are unintended outcomes. For example, in the early days of COVID, we saw companies start using large quantities of new chemicals to disinfect or clean workplaces, often without appropriate employee training on the application or understanding the hazards of breathing in the airborne chemicals or getting them on the skin. To act preventively, give priority to those measures that can improve working conditions – including both physical and psychological wellbeing. Measures should be part of the daily, weekly, and monthly conversation and goals, with follow-up assignments and accountability. Without full championing and investment from the top level of the organization, new safety and health initiatives can wither and fade away – until the next crisis arrives.
The Georgia Tech OSHA Training Institute Education Center offers safety and health courses in more than 20 topics throughout Region IV, an area covering Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky. For more information about how you can build immediately applicable skills, address the needs of your employer, and stay current with OSHA guidelines, visit their safety and health training page.