Why occupational health is so important during a crisis

By Nick Pahl, CEO Society of Occupational Medicine.

Our lives have seen massive change, with new uncertainty and challenges. We have missed people and our mind has wandered. There is stress and pressure from the fear of infection and feeling isolated, along with concerns about job or income loss. The crisis has demanded new ways of working and routines.

Weirdly, it can be a time for us all to find positives – if you are an employer have you been honestly treating mental health as equally important to the physical health of your employees? As a leader, employee or self-employed person – have you been able to demonstrate your own vulnerability and compassion as you reach out to help others.

Businesses have a responsibility to support health and well-being. They must think about mitigating the risks to employee mental health. Support for managers is required so that managers have the confidence to have sensitive discussions around mental health and signpost staff to expert sources of help. As the CIPD states in their latest health and well-being report, it is really important that managers are regularly checking in with their team. Health and safety carries on no matter where staff are based and whatever is occurring Covid wise.  SOM has recently produced regular blogs on topics such as working from home during challenging times and technology and COVID-19.

Coming up, one thing that will help is testing to identify those who have the virus so they can self-isolate and those who have had the virus and have some natural immunity. The latter should be able to return to work knowing that they cannot spread this virus or catch it again. Work is being done to prove this, and then decide how long immunity will last after an infection. This will help occupational health (OH) and HR professionals decide who can return to work and when. There will still be a group of vulnerable people who will need to remain at home isolating until we can protect them with a reliable vaccine. OH can identify who they are. There are models to emulate such as that of South Korea, who based their control program around testing and tracing of potential cases.

It is also likely that workers will feel stress from long periods confined at home. Some will also suffer bereavements, so psychological support during this time for employees and their families will also be important. This can be provided with health and support from HR and OH but also perhaps by an Employee Assistance Programme. The best support to help with readjustment are family, friends and colleagues. Managers have a big part to play in this and mental health training for managers would be appropriate.

Looking forward, as the CIPD state in their report we need to see the connection between well-being in relation to productivity and competitiveness. We can look back and balance the trauma of the situation and the opportunity for lessons to be learned - for example, there are jobs designed to improve employee health and well-being and managers are confident and capable to support people’s mental well-being and prevent stress for future challenging times.

We can ensure Occupational Health, with support from HR colleagues, can support and guide managers so that they feel equipped to have sensitive and supportive discussions with staff, reminding managers about the importance of communicating regularly with their team and asking how they are. A mental health strategy for a business will encourage staff to practise self-care such as a healthy routine for diet, sleep and relaxation and signpost people to counselling helplines or other support.

Nick Pahl is CEO of the SOM

SOM have an advice sheet updated daily, and have released statements on COVID-19 testing for key workers, PPE and handwashing and helped facilitate OH volunteering to help the NHS occupational health community at this difficult time. The SOM Work and Health area now includes COVID-19 resources such as What should Occupational Health Professionals know about Mental Health and COVID-19?

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.