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Managing the mental health impacts of remote and isolated work (panel discussion)

Safe Work Month and Mental Health Week 2020

Speakers: Kuda Sekete, Health and Wellbeing Culture Partner
April Jones, registered psychologist, representing Employee Assistance Professionals Association of Australasia (EAPAA)
Dominic Manca, Psychological Health Unit, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland.

This panel of experts will discuss how individuals and workplaces responded to and were impacted by COVID-19, and key learnings that can be applied to support health and safety in remote and isolated workplaces.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another Mental Health Week presentation from Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, a special session about managing the mental health impacts of remote and isolated work. I'm Chris Brambles, media manager for the Office of Industrial Relations, your MC for today. Firstly, can I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today, and pay my respects to their elders; past, present and emerging. I'd like to extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples watching today. Mental Health Week is celebrated annually in October and promotes the importance of mental health and wellbeing, and aims to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. It's an opportunity for your workplace to learn what you can and should be doing to reduce the risks of psychological illness and injury. Today, our panel of experts will discuss how individuals and workplaces responded to and were impacted by COVID-19, and key learnings that can be applied to support health and safety in remote and isolated workplaces. So let's welcome in now our panel members. First up, it's Kuda Sekeda, health and wellbeing culture partner from Urban Utilities. Kuda worked in health and safety for more than 10 years, ranging from designing and delivering programs grounded in applied psychology and neuroscience to workplace wellbeing programs. In her current role at Urban Utilities, she is developing and implementing a holistic health and wellbeing program. Welcome, Kuda. Also, next up is April Jones. April is a registered psychologist, representing the Employee Assistance Professionals Association of Australasia. She's a registered psychologist and a global clinical director at Assure Programs in Queensland. She has more than 20 years experience in mental health, a background in wellbeing and psychological services, Employee Assistance Programs and Vocational Rehabilitation. She is on the executive committee of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association of Australasia. Welcome, April.

Thank you.

And last but not least, Dominic Manca, chief advisor, psychological health unit, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland. Dom has worked across industry in strategic and operational safety and injury management roles as well as clinically as a rehabilitation counselor. Dominic will provide insights into the psychological impacts of remote and isolated work, in particular, the impacts of working from home due to the pandemic and what industry can do to achieve compliance and best practice by taking a psychological health risk management approach. Now, we have factored in some time for your questions at the end of the panel discussion. So please use the chat box on your screen at any time. Give us your name and your question, and we'll get through as many of those as we can. But let's get to our panel discussion first up. It's a welcome to Dom, and Dom first up can I ask, what were the main issues raised from a workplace health and safety perspective in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Thank you, Chris. Well, it seems like a little while ago for Queensland is that the pandemic hit us, but certainly the impact is still going on. But really in the early days, I think the rapid organizational change that was experienced due to the pandemic was one of the big highlights for us as a regulator. Certainly, the great deal of stress that that caused on individuals in workplaces was something that was really pronounced in our experience and across various industries. What that brought along was a whole range of psychosocial risk factors and hazards, which certainly we're often already in workplaces, but were largely highlighted by the rapid change and requirement to work from home, in that knowledge group area where the non-essential services organizations and sectors were required to rapidly change and transition into a working from home arrangement. We saw the isolation of workers become a real stressor for individuals.

And let's be honest and quote OIR on the hop as well from an operational point of view, from a business point of view, it caught us because we had to adapt to the change, to the conditions as well.

Yeah, absolutely. What that meant for individuals and workplaces was having to think in an agile way and to kind of take on challenges that were unprecedented for lack of a better term, managing workplace relationships that change to a virtual environment. We're all accustomed to that now, but in the early days, they certainly were issues that individuals struggled with and the way that work was designed after the pandemic hit, the changes in role clarity that were experienced. For myself and OIR and yourself, we had to do things differently. When things happen really quickly, that creates a level of stress and anxiety for leaders and workers alike. Some of the issues that were made aware to myself and my colleagues in our role within Office of Industrial Relations were really managing the work life and home life interactions, delineating that line. No longer were you going to work and coming home, you were always at home, for example. That suited some people but didn't suit everybody. I think that was probably one of the biggest factors that workplaces grappled with, was how do they provide the care, supervision and support to workers in times where they are remote. They've got a whole cross section of workers who are working at home, who have different levels of support as well. We continue to grapple with the physical distancing requirements of public health restrictions and how that impacts us and isolates us. I think that really were the main issues coupled with the occupational hygiene concerns that workers had if they were going back into the office or if they were working in an isolated area. We still had that level of anxiety that was creeping in and causing stress.

You touched on the issues that were raised. What controls were put in place by organizations to counter these issues that arose?

From the Office of Industrial Relations perspective, we did try our very best to work in an agile way to get as much information out there for organizations to learn quickly and adopt and implement controls and practices to better manage this scenario. I think it goes without saying that really strong management commitment and leadership, clear messaging, consultation with workers were the real key controls in a time of uncertainty. Obviously, this was something that organizations had not seen before, that those organizations who had well-developed safety management systems and wellbeing programs that considered psychosocial risks were better positioned to enact their controls quickly. One thing that I will encourage our listeners to consider in times like this, it is certainly not to neglect the benefits of consultation as a control. Without consulting with your workers, you're not considering how you can help them. And that's a very, very suitable control to understand what their needs are and then implement some systems in place for them.

What learnings do you believe can be applied to remote and isolated work generally? There are companies that are in that space already before COVID-19 struck, and now we need to spread that message out to a greater part of business to cater for remote and isolated work generally.

I think we've had some time now, particularly here in Queensland, as we move through the stages of the roadmap to lifting the restrictions. Certainly, some of the learnings, as I said earlier, really that management commitment and support and leadership. Some of the specific risk factors that we were exposed to from working from home and in isolation, we can take some great learnings from, for example, Microsoft Teams was something that I never heard of or really engaged in until recently, until March 23 or whatever the date was when it all became calendar invite, Microsoft Teams, connect virtually. If we drill down, some of the risk factors, there certainly are video conferencing fatigue, which is what I've coined that title. If you have a day full of meetings in the office, you are able to have some incidental social engagements and physical interactions with people and observe body language, but we don't necessarily get that opportunity if we're working from home and we live alone, or if we're working from home and we have a whole family there that are annoying us all day. Some of the learnings really are to understand what is going on in the workplaces of everyone who is working at home. And if there is a decision, a business decision, that there is a 50-50 split, or there's flexible working arrangements where workers are prone to isolation, then to understand what that looks like for them and how you can manage those risks moving forward.

We'll give you a little break 'cause there'll be more questions, I have no doubt about that, and move on to April. April, welcome first and foremost. No, you don't have to move. No, no, no, no. You can just take a break. What were the common reasons for referral of individuals at the onset of the COVID 19 pandemic, and then as the restrictions eased?

Thank you. I think from a EAP point of view, we definitely saw an increase in health anxiety issues, initially. People were really worried about their health. They were really worried about the uncertainty of their jobs. Those sorts of factors went up as far as the increase in referrals. We had a lot of people really confused about how to go from working from offices into that remote area, the technology. I know that we've just talked a little bit about that. There were some differences around things, but I think there was just that that uncertainty that became really problematic. There was a lot of confusion about whether people would keep their jobs as well. And obviously, with the media coverage and businesses shutting down everywhere, and lots of industries really impacted, that really made people feel very uncertain about what was going on. Then there was the financial aspect, what was happening for them at a financial level. And yes, some of the restrictions of ease but I don't see that it's been that much yet. So we're still dealing with that health anxiety, we're dealing with relationship issues that are a real concern for a lot of people, juggling that home life and at work, children being at home, the homeschooling, that's been a huge factor. A lot of people don't know how to school their children and do all those lesson plans with them, et cetera. A lot of respect for teachers have really gone up. They've also been looking at what are they gonna do in the future and how they're gonna manage, and do they have to go back to work or not? Then we've had a lot of issues around domestic violence as well. That's been on the radar for us to support people in that area. Alcohol has gone up, substance use. So yeah, number of things.

And let's face it. We are creatures that tend to worry a lot more, and when you're remote and isolated and don't have anybody that you can talk to and engage with, you feel it more, it's heightened, isn't it? That tension is heightened

That's absolutely right. And to be honest, what we're also seeing is those cases that are at higher risk than previously. There's a lot more people that are using our services that are saying, I can't wait for an appointment for a couple of days or a week, I need to speak to someone right now, because that level of heightened anxiety is really up.

From an Employee Assistance Program perspective, what actually helped them? We've talked about what happened. Now, what was able to be delivered that helped people overcome these?

I absolutely think having organizations that have employee assistance program has been a benefit to a lot of people. Being able to have that professional advice for people to know that they continue on with the therapy that they made started before COVID, but generally where they can access professional support. They can look for strategies, they can be able to comfortably say to someone, how do I cope with this? Without them feeling like it's impacting on their jobs or opportunities for security. So I think it's really important. And what I've seen is that the organizations need to really promote their EAP resources. What I don't want to say is that companies don't promote it and people don't know that it's out there, so they don't know what the resources are, and then having to go back to organizations to look for it.

Managers and bosses. They've not only got to look after their employees and their staff, but themselves. So what kind of resources were available to these people?

Yeah, absolutely. In the EAP world, all providers literally offer support to leaders and managers, they call it manager support programs generally. That gives leaders an opportunity to ring 24/7 and say, I have an issue, whether it's a staff related issue or it's for themselves and not knowing how to manage certain things, like it might be difficult conversations, or it might be that idea that they're just not sure how to actually identify the risks that some of their people might be having. That's quite stressful for a leader if they don't know what are the signs that they're looking for, what are the questions that they should be asking? So EAP providers do offer this leader support where they will go through the scenario with someone and they'll give them some tips. They'll give them some scripting as well. They might encourage them how to get that person to be referred into EAP. Also leaders are looking for, what else can we do? Maybe workshops, et cetera. How can we make sure that we provide the best type of opportunities for our people? So they're looking to see if there might be some virtual resilience training, or mental health awareness, et cetera. Strategies for switching off, all the things that we've sort of touched on already that are complicating this sort of time. So leaders need to have a lot of support and they need to look after themselves as well. If they're not available at a mentally healthy level, they're not gonna be able to help their staff.

And just because you're related, doesn't mean you're resilient. You know, COVID gets everybody in the end, really?

That's exactly right.

You've touched on what helped, was there a key takeaway message, something that really stood out during the COVID period? Which is ongoing, let's face it. We're not out of the woods yet.

I think for me, sort of just observing what's been going on, I think the key is to really stay connected. For leaders to stay connected with their employees, for employees to stay connected with each other, and also to be able to access resources. If people are not feeling great and loneliness is becoming a real factor right now, if people are not feeling like they're coping, they need to know where to go to get support, whether it's for leaders or whether it's something like an EAP program, to ring up and have an opportunity to go through some of these things that are actually impacting on them. I think just making sure people know what's out there.

I've got two words from that, April, connection and resources. How about that?

Great, perfect.

Connection and resources, everybody. Thank you, stay seated. We'll grab you for the question and answer session shortly. Let's move over to Kuda, welcome.

Thank you.

First of all, we know that you work at Urban Utilities. In your workplace, how did you monitor the psychological health of workers, which is really important? We need to keep an eye on them from a mental perspective?

Absolutely. And I think something that Dom mentioned earlier, the consultation piece for us was a really big area that we had to tap into. Not only from, I guess, sending out surveys and checking in with the employees every time we transitioned from one stage to the other, but it was just through anecdotal feedback, whether it was a matter of just pick up the phone or dialing in on teams and deciding, you know what? I'm doing a video conference call with this person today, just to check in.

'Cause isolation can also mean length of time that nobody talks to you, not just distance.

Absolutely. I think it's team levels, what each leader or I guess leadership groups did was they made sure that they meeting rhythms, whether it was weekly or I guess fortnightly, they were prioritizing, ensuring that the teams were connecting on a social level. Some leaders went above and beyond and actually make phone calls where they actually just speak to their employees on how they were tracking before they got to the transactional stuff, looking at what are you doing for work. Beyond that, what we also did across the entire enterprise was making available webinars where we knew we could foster connection, and had a number of experts speakers come to talk through what we knew were going to be some of the risks. So we were quite preemptive about calling out the risks of burnout, either from sedentary work or trying to overdo too much, especially when we're homeschooling. So we had a 12 week program where we ensure that each week someone was talking to us about a topic that we knew was pertinent to everyone and building into that time and opportunity for their loved ones to also be logging on, listening in and having a Q&A section where people could talk about, what's my immediate challenge now, and not having to wait for a survey that probably would come out to two months later or every other month. We tried on a weekly basis to make sure that there was some kind of connection and touch point, giving people practical, coping strategies, or maybe posing questions. We'd have targeted sessions for leaders, just giving them some considerations. How are you looking off to yourself? What are you doing to keep the finger on the pulse around how your teams are tracking? And how are you prioritizing, given the demands have lifted? We also had COVID leave introduced for a period of time where we were acknowledging, productivity would have been affected for a lot of people. And knowing that it'd be difficult, perhaps for those that would be single parenting or people that would both be at home with five kids, for instance, and just acknowledge the brutal fact is you won't get all the work done, so where do you pepper in some of that leave to make sure that the core work is done, but you're also able to help your children cope. That was another piece that we were given an allowance for that, and that came through consultation where, I guess, a cohort of representatives from the entire business in the emergency response team were able to speak up on behalf of the areas around the concerns that were coming up, and making a space to actually start making some practical decisions and make allowances for everyone.

What kind of controls were put in place?

At a group level, we had the sessions with the practical tips. The consultation piece was a key one for us. Every time we transitioned from one stage to the other, we ensured that we had an employee and leader survey where we actually deliberately called out some topics to get the leaders' views on what's working, what's not working? Where could we partner better to get a better outcome? And we asked the same questions from our employees as well. A lot of our decisions were based on what's the lived experience of the leader or the employee, and how do we co-create a workable way forward with everyone? We did always track leave. I guess a lot of our metrics were reported on a weekly basis just to see if there were any trends that needed to be called out or addressed. We had business continuity plans that really called out our critical functions because we were a business that's got to be providing a service 24/7. So our customers were priority, but we needed to make sure that our critical workers were also protected from the risks. And we had guidelines set aside for the teams that were out in the field around some of the parameters that they would need to ensure in place before they went out to work in the community, just to get them that sense of comfort that you're not out there on your own. These were conversations we had to deliberate on. Have we given them enough guidance? Have we put enough controls around physical distancing? When do we draw a line and not proceed with a particular activity? And these conversations were had on a weekly basis with reporting back from the business to a central team and our executive leadership team as well.

Pandemic breaks out, business goes virtually overnight to a remote setup or mostly remote. How did managers stay connected with the employees who are working remotely?

I guess like Dom, we also definitely jumped onto Microsoft Teams that became our new best friend in terms of connection. The meeting rhythms remained. I think a lot of leaders maintained their opportunities to continue connecting with their teams. But I heard a lot of feedback from leaders who went the extra mile in ensuring that every single week they were able to make contact with their teams, either collectively through fun activities. It could be virtual drinks at the end of the week down to one-on-one phone calls, where the one-on-ones became a critical touch point to ensure that every individual, whether you're an extrovert or introvert, could actually share how you are coping. I think that created a space as well for people to talk about things that might've needed adjustment or additional support. I have to give credit to a lot of leaders that they definitely did lean into that and went an extra mile in ensuring that every single week they had that opportunity to make contact.

Let's talk a little bit about the learnings from all of this. One of the areas I wanted to touch on, and you just mentioned it now is when you have introverted leaders or workers and trying to coach them to engage, particularly if you're a leader and you're not a great talker and not a great communicator, how suddenly then do you put that hat on and become that person?

That's a great point. I think we had some leaders that had to definitely put their personality challenges, or I guess, defaults aside and know that even if it's a two minute conversation, I need to just check in on how are you going, and this is why we had things like the webinars, guidelines given to them. But some smart leaders decided to also share the responsibility and allow team members to chair the team meeting. The responsibility wasn't always on one person, but they'd have opportunities for the team to collectively just talk about how they were going. We also made other opportunities to check in available, we call them thrive chats. They just wellbeing checking points, but they really an opportunity to coach individuals or teams on how to make that wellbeing conversation a priority, but to acknowledge it as, hey, this is an enabler for performance. It's okay to ask people, how are you going? What do you need to ensure that you can show up and perform? I can't say that too many leaders shied away from it because they were feeling the very same thing their teams were feeling. We had some amazing stories, actually, of teams feeling more connected. These would be without stereotyping teams that would have probably naturally been happy to plug away at their computers, but we're finding it refreshing to have that conversation when someone just calls and says, how are you going.

Kudos to those leaders who stepped out of their comfort zone and took up the challenge or even became creative and gave it responsibility to other workers within the team. It's all about engagement. It doesn't necessarily have to come just from one person. I think you might've mentioned it in your previous answer, that there were some unexpected outcomes, positive outcomes. Can you share some of those with us?

Absolutely. I think we discovered the magic actually of Microsoft Teams and there is always two sides of--

This is not a free ad from Microsoft Teams by the way.

Any virtual platform. We got a lot of engagement from a lot of people. I guess you typically struggle to have 100 people online for 30 minutes to talk about one topic. In the early days, that was one of the things that we quickly recognized as an amazing win that we could at the drop of a pin, actually rally a lot of people to just plug in for half an hour and pay attention to something that was important. So from communication perspective, I think we discovered that we could do more if we have a blended approach to how we communicate, collaborate. We're now beginning to question what sense is there in meeting mania or are there other ways to connect and pretty much spread the volume through the right channels in terms of communicating. We did experience some burnout as well. So there've been things we've questioned around, where is it worked and where has it not been helpful for us, but all in all, there was some efficiencies that we learned about that we thought, you know what, I saved two hours from driving, but we still value the face-to-face. Now it's really giving us a space to be quiet and get specific around where do I really need to be there in person? And when can I just log on and do it via video conferencing?

We're gonna go into our question and answer session shortly, but I'll throw this up to you guys first, and then we'll get to the first of our questions from Lauren. But at OIR, in our section, in the awareness and engagement unit, we had a regular thing called Cheesy Friday, where we would have a morning tea, quick 10 minutes, everyone caught up, discuss what happened during the week, what's coming up over the weekend, had a cup of tea and a biscuit. We tried to adapt that to a virtual one to invite those who were working from home. It was awkward in the first few stages, but we persisted. So I'll give a kudos to my boss who persisted with it. And then we adapted that to birthdays and the things that you would normally celebrate in an event, or as a little celebration. We tried to adapt and keep it going, just so that there was inclusion and engagement with the whole team. Little things like that. April, what are your thoughts on things like that that people may wanna adopt?

I think it's great. I'm hearing a lot of similar things, whether it be drinks on a Friday or a little quiz nights, or dress up occasions as well, people coming to meetings with fancy dress and things like that. I think anything like that is wonderful to connect and have a level of engagement.

It doesn't always have to be serious, does it?


It's a bit of team building, a bit of culture, all that sort of stuff. All right, let's go to Lauren's question, and thank you for joining us today. If you do have a question hop onto the chat box, name and your question. If it's directed to a particular panel member, please make sure you let us know who you'd like it directed to, and we'll get to as many as we can. Lauren asks, when you have half the team in the office and the other half still at home, it's hard to always remember to keep remote team members in the loop with office conversations. Sometimes they may not get the whole picture of what's going on. What are the panel's thoughts on this and ideas to help mitigate this? Quite often we'll just forge your head and it's work as business as usual, but we forget about those who are remote.

Absolutely. And I think it comes to that work design feature that's been touched on in different points from the panel members. Some of the tips could be looking at the roster design, for example, the rotation of who's in the office so that everybody gets that incidental office interaction that would otherwise not be the case if you had a specific half of the team working from home all the time and the other half of the team in the office. I think that's one factor. The staggered office days is something that I'd be looking at. Certainly, being cognizant of who's at home and who's not in the office. Your daily catch-ups and check-ins can be strategies to really understand who's where, where am I at? I'm coming in at 10 instead of this day or these days during the week. I think that there's some really basic tips that make a big difference.

It's important not to let go of some of the benefits we've gotten out of technology. Keep some of those channels open anyway, and maybe use things like teams to be dropping a note once a week. Everyone could just talk about, when am I in, when am I not? From a leadership or team perspective, there's an opportunity for a two minute weekly wrap up, hey guys, this is what we talked about this week. Or it could be something that becomes a topic in terms of those weekly meetings, what was covered last week, let's move on so nobody misses out. It's really bringing in some agile communication strategies as well.

Can I just play devil's advocate quickly, and April, you might be able to lead off on this. Can we have a situation where there's too many meetings? In the past, a lot of places are being said, well, we have more meetings than the pedagogue, when we had physical meetings. Now, where all of a sudden we've got digital meetings. Can we get to a point where I'm just meeting day off? I need to maybe have that meeting with the virtual drinks or the let's put on our Batman Cape and have a bit of fun and break it down a little bit.

I absolutely think that we can be having too many meetings. What I've noticed as well is that a lot of the diaries are going back to back as far as they're really scheduled in, and there's not a lot of in-between space. I don't think that's the best way forward for people's mental health and ability to feel like they're enjoying any part of it and getting that in-between cooler kind of time where they can just have the chit chat. I think you do need to monitor that. Absolutely meeting fatigue is happening out there.

For word or something to call it. Let's move to another of your questions. And again, thank you for joining us today. If you do have a question into the chat box, your name and who it might be a directed towards, if not the whole panel, we're happy to answer and we'll get to it ASAP. Tim asks, and this is for you, April. You're on notice here. Would you recommend a psychometric testing and pre-screening of employees who are being considered for deployment to remote and isolated areas?

That's a great question. I think that it depends. I think it really does depend on where they're going and what their experience has been previously. I don't like to encourage too many testings for anyone unless we really need it. But I think a really solid opportunity to give them an understanding of what remote area work would be is important. There some tests I think that could be used, but again, it depends on what the work is gonna be, who are they gonna be surrounded by, what the support networks are gonna be, et cetera. So sort of depends a little bit.

Can I just chime in there--

I think one of the more important elements for organizations to worry about when deploying workers through remote and isolated areas is a risk assessment of the environment that's gonna be engaged in rather than individual psychometric testing because often organizations have a tendency to individualize an issue, which is broader than the individual's experience. It's their interaction with the environment, it's their interaction with other psychosocial hazards. A psychosocial risk assessment on any remote or isolated work engagement would be a preference to psychometric testing, unless there are clear flags of individual concerns.

Having mining companies engaged in this in a long time where they've had remote camps, where they set up gyms and things that keep them mentally and physically active.

Yeah, Connected.

I think that actually Dom's point, it's really focusing on what are the factors that need to be promoted that are going to be good for people's mental health in that chosen workspace, if that's all they've got to go on, 'cause some people can only do a remote work. That's what the skill set they've got. It's really promoting some of those positive aspects as well as equipping people and making sure it's a rigorous part of the onboarding process. Do I have the tools to cope when it does become challenging to live in the middle of nowhere? And help them confront some of those challenges with the right skill set and tools as well.

Anne joins us as well. Thank you, Anne. Your question is for a balanced conversation. It's a bit of a comment as well. It will be good for the panel to touch on the mental health benefits from the COVID work from home situation i.e no commuting, more time to exercise, even more time with the family because you don't have to commute because the commute time has been cut down. Some people traveled an hour, an hour and a half, at either end of the day. You suddenly have more time. Who wants to kick off some of the benefits that we may have discovered during the pandemic?

I can act to that. It's a great point, unraised actually. There's been a lot of people that I think have expressed experiencing a greater sense of calm because their days don't start with the commuting mania and feeling like you've got also rush back home. They've been able to feel more productive and structure their days in a way where there's more flex in when they start work and when they finish and being able to actually switch off, take a walk and enjoy just working through from home to I'm taking a walk in the park. So I think from that perspective, there's probably been factors where those that have been able to harness it, experience less stress, because there's no perception of time pressure to operate. They don't have to also have the children in after-school care, if they've been able to design their workdays to end in time for them to be present for their loved ones as well.

Absolutely. I think people have realized that they can still access things from home. They don't have to physically go everywhere to do what they need to do. I think that's been a learning curve. Even in the counseling area, a lot of people used to just depend on face-to-face. Now they're quite happy to have video conferencing or telephone sessions. I think they're really benefiting from all of that as well.

I'd have to agree. I think while there's still is quite a few elements of stress in the workplace, there are quite a few benefits of working remotely or working from home. I think we're seeing it probably more as we move out of the severe restrictions that were put upon us in our societal interactions in the early days, because we're able to still get a sense of community rather than being like our friends in Victoria at the moment still enduring pretty significant restrictions where they don't get any engagement, they don't get any of those other incidental interactions that are really important for holistic wellbeing. As we move into this next phase where we've got a little bit more flexibility with what we do outside of work, when we can save a couple of hours on the commuting, it's definitely more positive in that sense.

And in a general sense, hasn't it shown business and industry that you can be adaptive and you can use new technology beneficially, that it doesn't have to be done the traditional ways. A lot of industries are built on tradition and don't move forward. All of a sudden we've had to, and now they're taking that opportunity to be a little more flexible. That's a word that all of you have used quite regularly; flexible, adaptive, all that sort of stuff.

I think people's confidence has gone up because they're having to work and do a lot of things on their own. They're actually probably stepping into a few more things than they would have if they were in a workplace. I think a lot of people are feeling pretty good about the skills they're developing, the ability to work and be productive. They're getting good feedback from a lot of their leaders and the leaders are doing well. They're even stepping up and gaining new skills and ways to communicate.

We'll lay the positives. Let's have a look at Mark's question, which is, what are some more suggestions on keeping employees engaged while working remotely? Anyone?

That's it? I think it's about being creative yourself and knowing your workers. My suggestion, if you're struggling, it's to ask. Particularly, if you are a leader, it's to ask your people what they need. Particularly like when we're talking about factors coming out of the COVID restrictions, we are to offer face-to-face meetings with our staff now unlike previous times, we've travel restrictions. When I think of suggestions, that's being creative with the way you engage. If it is a walking meeting with one of your staff, because you know that you live in a close proximity to them. These are some of the things that we saw thrown around in the early days to encourage that social connection. So being creative, thinking outside the square, and if you're limited yourself in doing that, ask questions and consult with your workers. During the difficult times in the early days, pollster, that is really good ways of engaging and understanding what work is needed. It's not only up to you to come up with the ideas, sometimes the people involved in the interactions have good ideas as well. So I encourage everyone to consult, consult and consult. If you take anything away today in times of uncertainty, it is to consult.

I think to act to your point as well, Dom, something that came up as we spoke to some teams that were doing this particularly well, was encouraging them to reach out to other teams. So we wouldn't also, I guess, inadvertently have silos for me where teams are flourishing flourish while the others that struggle struggle in isolation is actually creating maybe buddy systems between teams because within one function, they might be six other subdivisions that could probably rotate ways of connecting with other areas and learning from peers. I'd probably encourage that shared responsibility and reaching out so that we also find ways to connect between the functional areas we're in so you're not in silos in isolation. It's definitely always thinking outside the square.

Megan asks, have you noticed any notable challenges and changes for workers transitioning back into the office and having less freedoms from working from home?

I think some of the challenges for organizations that I've observed in different areas of the work that I've been doing have been really individuals having preferences to work from home or individuals having preferences to work from the office and not being able to come back to the office. It's really grappling with those circumstances and some big decisions for leaders to make is what work looks like in the future. Some organizations in the early days were making decisions on whether they have a face-to-face office at all. Some of the big factors to consider in making those decisions is how you communicate that to your workers and what level of support you can offer them, because you still have duties as a PCB, as a leader, as an organization, you still have duties to look after your workers. It's important not to lose sight of that. I think that's one of the things that everybody needs to be considering.

One of the things that I've noticed in the return to work is the fact that people are still worried about their health anxiety. When you have people coming back to work and thinking, okay, I'll start to transition back, but then they hear something coming back from the media saying, there's a hotspot somewhere, or there's a bit of an increase in the outbreak of the virus. That anxiety level goes up again. Or if they're coming into the office and there is people sneezing and they might not have COVID, but they might have a bit of hay fever. That's increasing a level of anxiety too. There's a little bit of back and forth still going on at the moment. So we have to manage that level of anxiety for people.

Or even internally, try to bring some of these considerations to the forefront, I suppose, through the polling where we've given people an opportunity to share their feedback, as we've transitioned from one stage to the next around what has been working and what hasn't worked. But we've also proactively pushed out a consistent message around how we still want to observe physical distancing and really reinforcing the protocols and the controls that we know have been working. They're not forgotten about, but giving leaders and employees an opportunity to talk about what is realistically going to work so that we remain productive, and what are anxieties that need to be talked to so leaders know where an individual requires additional support and then use that to tailor the type of response we give as well, because it's probably always going to be a bit of a slow creep getting back into it until we feel comfortable that we're reasonably safe to do.

Sarah is looking at the now situation and into the future. And she asks, if there's an option to do work from home in an ongoing capacity, how do you think this will impact on career progression? Will people who aren't in a regular face-to-face contact with managers be disadvantaged? So it's that distance and isolation from the physical engagement with key personnel, as far as career advancement is concerned.

I don't think it should because it's just down to the quality of the relationships that we're going to have to form, and it shouldn't necessarily depend on, have I seen you face-to-face, though we know that does go a long way. It's probably looking at how else do we build meaningful relationships to ensure that it's not about physical proximity, whether or not you progress internally in a business, and if the output is measured in different ways, not just have you been in the office, then it should be merit-based. Am I producing good output no matter where I'm working from? I think we've probably seen that it's possible. It's probably being very clear on our measures and the quality of the relationships we form.

Yeah, I have to agree. I think it's already been several years of Skype interviews for jobs that we've been familiar with interstate internationally, that people are selected over video conferencing and without the need for a face-to-face meeting. I don't see that being a significant impact on career progression. The work environment is gonna change some of our interactions as crude or rightly put, and some people might excel a little bit more in the virtual environment or the video conferencing environment, but as individuals, we will, and we already have shown that we can adapt and move with the times towards being able to engage in that way.

Just moving a step further from this conversation and take it to another level, as a manager or a boss with people working remotely, trust is going to be a key word. You're gonna trust that they're doing the right thing at home. How hard is it gonna be? Does it put extra pressure on that manager? If I have to have some hard conversations with somebody about productivity, about application or whatever it might be, these are hard enough to have in the office yet alone, digitally or remotely. Can you offer some advice for that where you may have to have a prickly conversation or two? 'Cause not everybody's gonna be a star pupil, really?

I think you're right. That's always been a challenge for leaders, whether it's working from home or not, working next to your staff member who's not performing it's... I think we need to manage it almost the same and be prepared for those conversations importantly, but also be prepared for some of the limitations that come with a virtual discussion. Obviously, there are factors to weigh up when talking about difficult topics. We need to try our very best to preserve the well-being of the worker while we address difficult topics, and that should be our priority. While we should take a similar approach, we just need to adjust it, given that we're not gonna be in the same room as the worker.

That's really great. I think also leaders need to adjust what their expectations are, and they also need to make that very clear to their employees. It's going to be a little bit of a change. Things might need to be re-clarified as to what those expectations are, what the KPIs are, et cetera, and have that level of flexibility in there. I think leaders need to move with that before employees can.

I think I'd always just offer the other side of the coin is as much as I'm going to expect my leader to be clear on their expectations, I need to probably be proactive too, and calling out where I feel they'll be various that are going to affect my ability to meet the mark. That's considered and talked about early on, and have that really proactive approach to let's find ways to prevent these challenging conversations. If we can preempt, what's likely to go wrong and find ways to work around it in advance, whether it's resourcing or home and work dynamics. That mean I can't work at the same pace as everyone else. Well, what can we do to make sure that that doesn't become a performance barrier for someone?

Is there a danger then, because there isn't that office interaction that your employee could take advantage of the situation?

I think there always is. I think anecdotally though, we've heard that that hasn't been necessarily been the case but--

I'm not suggesting but you've got to look at it from both levels. The manager needs to keep productive work coming, needs to keep that employee engaged and look after their wellbeing, but also needs to get XYZ done. I think April's hit, we need to perhaps be malleable with the expectations and set them out clearly, and they might need to be reviewed regularly because of certain situations.

Absolutely. That's where the psychosocial risk assessment lends itself to a leader being well versed in their workers' performance and the risk factors impacting their performance. It is a danger and it's a danger to the workers' wellbeing as well as the productivity for the business.

A lot of distractions. Let's go to Adam who asks, given the nature of work, design is going to keep changing. So we've already established that that's changing. How do businesses manage mental health in a way that is adaptable to such changes? 'Cause it's gonna change, so surely we have to change, and management stalls and what we do has to change.

That's where that consultation piece is very important. If we're going to change our way of working or change a system, that's going to affect an individual. It's a two-way street. There needs to be some feedback or input from the employees or workforce around, yup, that's doable. No, it's not. And co-create that new reality as well because there is a danger of going down the wrong pathway, but having people disengage or causing more harm. It's important to factor in the impact on mental health as work design is reviewed. If there's no certainty, then that's that consultation opportunity.

I think a lot of organizations haven't got really robust mental health strategies in place yet. I think that's developing right now. We're seeing a lot more emphasis on it. It's becoming a bit more of a priority and I think that's great. So I think once those sort of strategies are put in place, the frameworks are set up, people know what they can get, the parameters around all of that, that'll help us to be able to manage it.

April, I'll I think Adam's second part of his question is probably directed at you. EAPs are often used quite reactively when a situation flares, when problems arise, but how can we use them more proactively?

That's a great question, and absolutely right. EAP has been known to be a reactive service, but what I'm seeing going forward is that if there is more encouragement to use EAP for things that are around helping people to improve their skills or their resilience, as opposed to feeling like they're broken and they've hit the wall, I think that's really important for leaders in organizations to promote that. I'm seeing a lot more of the providers offering different services these days, which are more of the proactive type of interventions. They're negotiating with their EAP provider and saying, we've identified a group of people that we want you to contact. What we know in the EAP area is that utilization is roundabout five to 10% roughly. You've got this 90% of people that never access the service because they don't feel like they're really unwell or there's other factors that are preventing it. I think finding ways to be able to use your EAP provider to reach out to a lot of the individuals in organizations at different times, and do welfare checks, for example, or just check-ins, which is what EAP providers can do really well. Then they can assess risk as well. But again, just offer some really proactive strategies and people again, feel like they're being valued by their organizations if that happens.

Louise has asked us and thanks for joining us, Louise, what advice do you have for HR where employers are indicating a level of anxiety to return to the workplace post telecommuting?

It's one of the things we've done as we went home to work from home, was try to have some of those proactive conversations, preempting the anxiety, and we've considered the same approach as we transitioned to the fixed workplaces to actually have conversations where leaders and team members are given an opportunity to consider, look, it's not going to be for everyone. Consider what work-life integration or boundaries really look like and how have you positioned yourself to set yourself up for success? We've always found that it's been good to just name the elephant in the room early, create a space to talk about it with that drive for practical solutions. I think it's important to make it okay for those conversations to be had because there'll be solutions once that's been laid out, I suppose.

I totally agree, Kudo, and I think your workplace has done a fantastic job on calling that out and forming an organizational position. I think that's where a lot of the angst for HR managers or leaders really is. It's not knowing when and how to make the decision to make a call on these types of things, and then allow that to trickle down into the workplace and enable latest to engage in those conversations with workers who might be expressing feelings of anxiety, because we all have a duty of care to monitor the health of our workers as well, as managers and leaders. The WHS Act is explicit around that. If we are aware of mental health risks and workers disclosing that risk, we really need to be supporting them and having a conversation, at least. Not knowing what to do isn't good enough. If I was to talk to a HR advisor, I'd be saying, we need to form an organizational position on this and we need to make that clear to everybody.

Do you find it ironic that it takes a pandemic or COVID-19 for us to make changes that we probably could have done anyway? But it takes a disaster or a near miss for something to actually happen.

Yeah, yeah.

We learned quickly.

I think that's been one of the upsides though, is just discovering what we're capable of and our agility and hoping that that's momentum we might want to keep up moving forward just to not hold ourselves back and make decisions and move as if the pandemic was still on.

Just quickly, was there resistance at any level at Urban Utilities when you had to come up with and be adaptive and change quickly?

To be honest, there wasn't too much because the threat was very real for us. In as far as are we able to work away from home, it was almost done in record time and give kudos to our IT teams. They worked really hard and that mobility, as well as the capability was built very quickly. For some teams, it was as if nothing changed because they were able to continue being productive. There were pockets where people at an individual level struggled with, I'm not sure what this is gonna mean for me, particularly when you consider someone who lives alone or they're in a one-bedroom and they need to set up an office in their space, but that's also their home. Those were considerations we had to really stop and think about and continue to really look at them closely because it hasn't been the same pleasant experience for everyone, particularly when people are going to be working and living from home and that's all they see and know. Within reason, there was some challenges and you'd expect them and we've acknowledged them.

More of your questions and thank you again for bringing these to our attention. Tim asks, who can conduct a psychosocial risk assessment, use EAP or engage a registered psychologist?

That's a great question. Look, absolutely any of the above there. We do encourage someone with experience in conducting those types of assessments to be the ones doing it in the workplace. WHS professional, Rehab and Return to Work Coordinator, could probably source the resources and material and educate themselves on the topic and the process. Office of Industrial Relations has a whole suite of resources to guide one in doing a psychosocial risk assessment, the mentally healthy workplaces toolkit, which is on the WorkSafe website, steps you through that process. All of the tools, the checklist, the assessment templates are there, and you'll hear some of the hazards that I mentioned today throughout the discussion that they're there for you to assess. Really important to spend the time to go through that properly. Consultation with workers is absolutely imperative to undertaking that because they are the people who are gonna tell you how it's all happening on the ground. EAP obviously provide different services at different times, so April might have some comments on that.

I think a lot of the EAP providers have a team of organizational development, psychologists say this is kind of their bread and butter as well. That's usually evaluated for the EAP. If they wanted to access that, we can do that as well.

I've got a question for you, Kuda. Comes from Susan. Thank you, Susan. I'd like to hear how Urban Utilities manage the extra demands of homeschooling for employees juggling this.

Great question. 'Cause we've got a very diverse workforce. Early on I mentioned we had COVID leave offered. Every employee during that period of time, if they knew that it was virtually impossible to get work done between nine and two, those were opportunities where you could literally carve out that time and claim it as COVID leave. It came with a conversation with the leader, explaining what it was for. We had set clear criteria for who could apply for it, and we acknowledged why it was made available. I think a number of parents took that whether it was hours or days in the week where they knew that, look, I can't actually function from nine to 12 and I've partnered with my partner to rotate and share the first half of the day and then vice versa. That opportunity was created for people to be a bit more planned, I guess, in a practical way around what and how they could allocate their time without feeling frazzled for a period that no one knew how long it was going to last. I think that for us was our biggest saving grace, was knowing that I can take COVID leave for three hours while I'm adapting to homeschooling, and then I can reduce it once I feel like I'm comfortable. The other piece was also referring back to our business continuity plans. We were very clear and our leaders are clear around what the critical functions or tasks or activities we needed to do and use that to guide our planning then around what does that mean for how you allocate your time. I'd probably say that the COVID leave component was great because it was about time and knowing how to shift. The other piece we also added in there was we made sure that we did have awareness sessions or just conversations, whether it was with a registered pycho and economists talking through some practical tips around how you would get to juggle within reason and also knowing where the line was for ourselves so people could self-manage with more autonomy.

Because juggling is critical and we've spoken about flexibility and being adaptive, but juggling can also be dangerous because you're throwing all the balls in the air and you're struggling. It's gonna put more pressure on you. It's not just about stretching the day or making every hour count. You've got to do it within reason. Thank you everyone for your questions. This is the last one, we're getting close to the end of our session. It comes from Alistair, and he would like the panel members to give some tips on what we can do to reclaim our homes. It's hard to switch off and not just keep responding to emails, et cetera, after hours. There is a dangerous habit that we all are guilty of, that we cannot differentiate between work and home, particularly when they're intertwined.

I love that saying, reclaim our homes, because it's so true. I think there are lots of tips that I think probably April could lend across to Alistair and everyone listening. I think it's important to really mindfully switch off and make those decisions yourself. Things like notifications on your phone or closing the office door if that's where you've been set up, switching the laptop off. I know there were times where I'd left the laptop on because I know I was gonna go back to work in an hour or so. That gravitates me back there. So making some really conscious, mindful decisions. Personally, that that helped for me. Reclaiming your home, I totally get it. The work design within your home is important as well, which I think we rushed into. We had to quickly set up shop 'cause we didn't know how long it would go for, and we just had makeshift environments and six months later, we're still there. Talking to your leaders, making decisions in the home, having conversations in the home, really important tips. But April's probably got more than that.

I think you did a great job. But I do think similar to that or an extension to that is literally knowing what your routines are. So actually being really clear on what your start time is and what your finish time is and not sort of letting that extend in into the private time or the recreational time, family time. Weekends in particular, put it all away. Don't have an hour in that space. You can't physically see it and then you feel like that is your home again. Tidying up at the end of your work day. Again, you're sort of not bothered by what you're seeing on the side. Some of those things I think are really important.

I definitely agree with everything April and Dom highlighted. I did this for myself too, because I liked going back to my home from the office and figured that the best ways leave no evidence of work when work is finished; pack away the laptop, the phone, put them on silent or have a designated room, if it's possible, where you do work and when you're done, you leave the door shut and you walk away from it. But I began making this a ritual as well. We had known, for 15 minutes, I'm literally decluttering the space and making it my home space once again. That became part of my day where I know when I'm done with this. I've also just switched off mentally. I think the hard part is we can physically pack away work, the next bit is mentally switching off to everything. That's the bit that a lot of us probably still struggle with. As you pointed out, April, if there isn't a very clear start and finish time to this is when I stopped work. And having rituals around what happens between work and when you step back into your lounge to be a parent or a partner. Those are important deliberate habits that I think we all still need to be very deliberately honing in around what am I doing to switch work off? Do I write a list or am I writing a memo for myself so that I'm not mulling over it while I should be interacting with my loved ones? I think discipline and creating your habits deliberately is important.

Again, thanks everyone for your questions. We are running out of time, but I would like to ask each of the panel members just a quick take home message. I know you've got some tips, Dom, some take-home advice that you'd like to share with us.

From a WHS perspective when it comes to compliance with psychosocial risk factors, I want everyone to take away the fact that we need to be paying attention to psychosocial risk factors in the workplace, not only remote and isolated work. There's a whole gamut of factors. We need to be paying attention to those more so because of the public health restrictions, because of the pandemic. That we need systems in place to support our workers and that we need to consult with our workers.


April, from an EAP point of view, you bring that specialty.

From an EAP point of view I would say, make sure that you know who your EAP provider is. Latest to promote that keep the resource handy. No problem's too small to reach out for a little bit of assistance or support along the way. So do that.

And Kudo, from the Urban Utilities learnings and what you have in place and what you obviously still need to adapt and change and update.

I think what we're learning is that we need to continue thinking about what's sustainable because maybe the stage one is over, but we're still in this very long distance run, as it were adapting and changing things. So self care and continuing to look for sustainable ways of working and living is probably key.

Great advice. On behalf of WHSQ, I'd like to thank our panel members today, Dom, April and Kuda, for joining us. Very informative, and we take all of your advice on board. As Dom mentioned, a little earlier, Dom, your WHSQ has a range of tools and resources that can assist you in identifying and managing work-related mental health hazards, including stress, violence, bullying, and fatigue. visit too check these out, including a number of existing webinar recordings, which may be of interest. If you or someone you know needs support, please reach out. A range of support services are on your screen. Lifeline is available 24/7. Thanks everyone for tuning in today and supporting Mental Health Week. Remember work safe, home safe.