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Taking care of our essential workers

The resilience and success of all organisations, business and society is reliant upon the healthy and safety of people – employees, customers and partners. As the UK fights the coronavirus epidemic, we all have a duty to support essential workers as best we can. Below is an extract from a paper written by Noreen Tehrani, a committee member of the British Psychology Society (BPS) in the Crisis, Disaster and Trauma Section, where she discusses what needs to be considered at organisations employing those deemed essential workers. You can find the full paper here.

In order to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of the wider community essential workers need to continue working while putting themselves at potential risk of infection. These workers face huge daily work pressures to provide the support and services often with reduced resources. At the same time the Essential Workers have a life outside their workplace and their own uncertainties on how things are at home and how elderly dependents are coping.  The effects on this special group can be physical and psychological stress and trauma.

It is easy to identify some of the essential workers, however, the groups we depend upon is perhaps much wider than may be considered. This list may not include all essential workers but provides some indication of those who need support.

Public Services

NHS

Police

Fire & Rescue

Military

Teachers

Refuge Collectors

Prison Service

BBC

Water/Sewage

Power

Social Workers

 

Private Services

Transport

Farming

Food Retailers

Funeral Directors

Red Cross Emergency Teams

Postal Workers

Religious Leaders

Crematoriums

Cemeteries

Social Care

Delivery workers

Organisations and management are in a challenging situation, they can feel extreme pressure to meet government tasking and objectives within limited resources, finances and deployable workers.  It is also recognised that unlike many other major incidents this situation is likely to last many months. Managers and supervisors need to make sure that their teams do not wear out and at the same time help to motivate them to continue working under high pressure over and extended time.

It is important that managers and supervisors have the knowledge, skills and tools to help them take care of their teams and to demonstrate a high level of compassion and understanding at a human and organisational level. It is also important that the Essential Workers recognise the symptoms of stress, burnout, compassion fatigue and trauma and know how to build their resilience and protect their wellbeing at this difficult time.

What can leaders/managers do?

We know from organisational and military psychology there are factors which help to build resilient organisations. Positive leadership is particularly important; however, this means that leaders must be self-aware and able to understand and to respond appropriately to the needs of their teams for support and guidance. The example set by leaders demonstrating positive attitudes when dealing with problems and imbuing a sense of hope, optimism and commitment will influence the atmosphere within the team creating a stronger sense of cooperation and engagement.  During a crisis it is important that senior management are available and visible either physically or through digital platforms.  Leaders need to show they care, understand and support their workers by being prepared to listen particularly to those on the front line. 

Showing compassion

Leaders and managers must also be compassionate in recognising the concerns of individual workers. Leaders should be at the forefront of demonstrating care, putting the needs of the worker first particularly if a worker is struggling with mental health problems, has worries about their elderly parents or children, or are going through a divorce or bereavement. The key to the caring approach is communication and flexibility, listening and acknowledging problems and then looking for solutions which can help to meet the needs of the individual and the organisation.

Maintaining standards

The Health & Safety Executive Management Standards are a good place to start. Whilst it is recognised that it is difficult to maintain all the standards during a crisis it is important to identify the standards which can be maintained and maximised. 

  • Demands: including issues such as workload, work patterns and the working environment
  • Control: how much say the person has in the way they do their work
  • Support: which includes the encouragement and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
  • Relationships at work: which includes promoting positive working practices to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
  • Role: whether people understand their role within the organization and whether the organisation ensures the person does not have conflicting roles
  • Change: how organizational change is managed and communicated

It is the supervisor’s role to make sure that the team does not become burnt-out, some may be willing to continue working even when they are exhausted.  Essential workers provide essential services and for some of these workers there will be a sense of duty to continue working beyond what is reasonable and healthy. This willingness to perform their role when exhausted can make them vulnerable and increase the possibility of compassion fatigue and secondary trauma.  In a crisis or disaster people often feel buoyed up with extra energy and drive but this is not a state that can continue for long and whilst there may be a belief that their efforts are indispensable and they are invincible this is a false belief and can lead to long term mental health problems.

Maintaining Routines

Starting each day or shift with a briefing creates a sense of normality and control.  The briefing helps to make sure that everyone is aware of what is happening and avoids gossip and rumour.  The briefing should be two way providing an opportunity for the team to talk about their experiences, to discuss and identify solutions to problems.  During the chaos of a disaster or crisis it is the front-line personnel who are the first to notice issues as they arise, and it is also them who have the knowledge and awareness to find solutions.

For more information on the British Psychology Society (BPS), visit their website. For Noreen Tehrani’s full article click here.