While some avenues for influence have been narrowed for OHS professionals in by not being able to be physically present when speaking to decision-makers through 2020, this has been potentially offset by OHS professionals’ increased visibility in critical roles which operationalise COVID-19 responses.
While this has often meant long hours, Dr Kirsten Way, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology at The University of Queensland, said it has also potentially increased influence as organisations lean on OHS professionals’ expertise.
COVID-19 has also required OHS professionals to use (and in some cases build) certain competencies more than others, she explained.
“While the technical area of managing risk from exposure to biological hazards is the obvious area, perhaps more important, are competencies related the to the psychology of human behaviour,” said Dr Way, who recently spoke at the Strengthening Approaches to Workplace Mental Health online conference, held in partnership between The Australian Institute of Health & Safety and The Hatchery.
“I think it was summarised beautifully by my colleagues (Jetten, Reicher, Haslam and Cruwys) in their book Together Apart, when they said: ‘Our means of controlling the spread of infection depend on behavioural changes and hence upon human psychology. … Indeed, all we can do to control the virus right now is get people to behave appropriately – to ‘do the right thing.’ … However, it is not enough to understand that we need psychology as a core part of efforts against COVID-19. It is also important to understand what sort of psychology helps or hinders in those efforts.”
Dr Way also observed that while there are some things that have long been recognised as benefits in working from home (such as productivity, job satisfaction, reduced turnover, reduced cost, less interruptions, less noise, less stress from commuting), she said there are additional issues that are unique to working from home during the pandemic that can have both positive and negative effects on worker mental health.
“First and foremost is the change in autonomy, and specifically the involuntary nature of working from home,” she said.
Secondly, social isolation and loneliness and relying on technology for authentic connection, loss of incidental communication, communication bombardment/workload associated with the pandemic, and physical aspects of work environments have also come to the fore with working from home.
Other challenges include family members also working from home (interruptions and workspaces such as territoriality and boundary management), new hybrid work (where some are working in the office and some aren’t, resulting in team fault-lines forming (ingroups/outgroups), and line managers having to quickly develop trust and skills in managing performance and wellbeing – without a line of sight.
“The list is quite extensive,” said Dr Way, who notes that much of the research done on the health and work impacts of working from home was undertaken in the 1990s and early 2000s, “although new research is coming out every day, particularly related to the current and post COVID-19.
“More needs to be done to investigate these issues, including the impact on health behaviours such as physical activity and sedentary behaviour and how this might also influence worker mental health,” she said.
There are a number of steps organisations can take to address these issues, and Dr Way said line managers are key to this process.
“If they can be authentic, supportive, connecting, and aware of work demands/design, a great deal of the risk control will be achieved,” she said.
“It is important for organisations to also have systems to ensure the line managers’ wellbeing, though.”
Three frameworks for risk assessment and risk control are particularly helpful for OHS professionals, Dr Way said: The framework of psychosocial hazards (for example, see the Psychosocial Hazards Body of Knowledge chapter and/or Safe Work Australia guide), The principles of good work design, and the psychological needs outlined in the Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory (autonomy, relatedness and competence).
In terms of improving the design of work, she said OHS professionals have the tools in their toolkits already: “they can use the knowledge and skills to specifically analyse the four quadrants of work characteristics (physical, cognitive, biomechanical and psychological) and apply the principles of good work design when assessing the work, the work systems, the physical work environment, and worker capacities, needs and experience,” she said.
“Within the psychological quadrant, look to use the frameworks noted above to analyse key psychosocial hazards (for example, see those listed in the recent update of the Body of Knowledge chapter on Psychosocial Hazards), but specifically focus on how the involuntary and unique aspects of the pandemic may be causing those psychosocial hazards to negatively impact workers’ experience of decreased autonomy, relatedness with others, and sense of competence in their work.”