How the University of Sydney has led health and wellbeing through COVID-19

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Thursday, 22 October, 2020 - 12:30
Industry news
National News
New South Wales

It has been important for leaders at The University of Sydney to be very visible and clear about their own safety leadership through the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the university’s director of safety, health and wellbeing, Julia Cohen.

“COVID -19 came as a huge surprise to the University just as it did to all organisations,” she said.

“We were lucky in many ways that we have medical experts within our organisation who were already involved with the WHO and Australian government who were watching the developments coming from Wuhan.”

Cohen, who recently spoke as part of an AIHS and Women & Leadership Australia webinar on leading workplace health and wellbeing in a pandemic, said the university was alerted that many of its students were unable to travel from their home country in late January.

“We quickly realised that a much larger issue was developing,” she said.

“The pandemic response plan was activated, including activating the crisis management plan for a prolonged period of time, which resulted in bringing the executive team closer to the day to day management of a safety incident than they had been before.”

Cohen said that being an essential business meant that many of the strict COVID-19 restrictions under the public health orders did not apply to the university – while at the same time its obligations to manage risks remained.

“This meant that health and wellbeing had to comply with two, sometimes competing legislative frameworks,” said Cohen, who explained that some of the workplace health and wellbeing issues that quickly came to the fore included:

  • Dealing with the uncertainty: “what was going to happen to our business; would this crisis affect job security? How could we find a balance between controlling the physical risks and risks to mental health of staff?” she said.
  • Fear of contracting the virus: “how could we keep the university open and ensure staff and students were kept safe?”
  • Consultation: leaders were expected to make many large decisions and fast, and at the same time ensure that the workforce was adequately consulted
  • Remote working: “all of a sudden we had ~10,000 staff working remotely and dealing with the workplace risks associated with that,” she said.
    “To manage and lead this, we developed a series of webinars on working remotely and managing teams whilst working remotely, One of the most popular webinars we held was about managing burnout during COVID.”

As a WHS professional, Cohen said the opportunity to be involved in strategic decision-making to ensure the viability of the university was a hugely rewarding experience.

“It was a real opportunity to demonstrate the value that inclusion of safety considerations in the decision-making process leads to better and more sustainable businesses,” she said.

“Personally I found the experience of leading a pandemic response and working closely with our executive team enormously rewarding.

“As a leader, I made it a priority to be highly transparent about the importance of managing my own wellbeing, even whilst developing systems to support the wellbeing of our workforce.”

Post-pandemic, Cohen said she hopes that key lessons are retained, and the challenge will be to embed all of the learning and create more flexible, agile and sustainable workplaces across Australia.

“Many lessons have been learned from the pandemic response and business continuity,” she said.

“One key element of that which I hope is sustained is that businesses continue to see the value that safety professionals provide in developing sustainable businesses.”