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Why you must look after your construction workers’ mental health during COVID-19

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Why you must look after your construction workers’ mental health during COVID-19

Employers in construction and other industries throughout Australia must take proactive steps to protect the mental wellbeing of their workforce during COVID restrictions and lockdowns, leaders from the regulator for workplace safety in New South Wales say.

With much of Australia remaining under restrictions and construction workers in Greater Sydney unable to work, SafeWork New South Wales senior leaders are warning that many workers face mental health challenges.

Whilst their discussion in a recent SafetyCast referred to the current situation in New South Wales, many of the principles discussed apply more broadly.

According to Rowe, change can create stress and anxiety to which workers can respond in different ways.

She says employers can take several measures to assist

  • during periods of site shutdown
  • times of access restriction 
  • after reopening and;
  • when responding to workers who disclose mental health concerns.

Whilst lockdowns are in progress, Rowe says communication is critical.

This includes ensuring that workers remain informed about:

  • How the business is addressing COVID-19 and any control measures which need to be adopted
  • Entitlements which they can access – especially if they contract COVID or have carer responsibilities.
  • Support services and resources that are available, along with how they can access these.

Next, workers should share any worries or anxiety with their employers and should be encouraged and enabled to share with others.

In this regard, it can be helpful to create a central point of contact through which workers can raise concerns.

Employers must also understand their responsibilities to provide a mentally healthy workplace under legislation and remain informed through official information sources.

The relevant legislation in New South Wales (this will vary in other jurisdictions) is the Work Health and Safety Act 2011. Relevant information sources include NSW.gov.au, NSW Health, Safe Work NSW and Safe Work Australia.

Finally, employers should continue to offer support services whilst business owners should take advantage of these for their own personal use.

As workers return, meanwhile, Rowe says further action is needed.

Notwithstanding the need to make up for lost time, it is essential to ensure that tasks are designed safely from a physical, mental and COVID viewpoint.

When doing this, workloads should be monitored and reviewed to ensure that these are realistic and manageable.

It is also important to reassess the work environment and ensure that any new hazards since any shutdown are managed.

In addition to physical hazards, these could include psychosocial risks such as time and financial pressures; bullying, harassment and violence; and working in isolation (see below).

Next, work should be planned to ensure that workers are clear about what they are doing, their roles and responsibilities and how companies and sites will operate.

In addition, workers should be consulted about several matters. These include changes that occur upon return, how these are communicated and how workers can be supported.

Next, employers need to maintain communication and keep workers updated about what is happening with COVID and how this will impact their workplace.

With many workers having lost income, employers should connect with them and understand how they have been impacted and how the company can help.

Moving forward, it is vital to check in with workers regularly about how they are feeling and how they feel that things are progressing as a team.

When planning a mentally healthy workplace, Rowe says employers must understand physical and psychosocial hazards.

These are negative features of a work environment that can contribute to a ‘stress response’ and lead to physical, emotional or psychological damage.

Such hazards often stem from how tasks and jobs are designed, managed and supervised.

They can also result from physical and social aspects of the workplace. These can include the equipment being used, the physically demanding/physically hazardous nature of tasks, workplace relationships, and social interactions.

In construction, examples can include:

  • Role overload where high volumes of work needing to be done within restricted timeframes and/or with limited resources
  • Inadequate support from managers and supervisors
  • Work related violence, bullying or harassment
  • (Particularly during lockdown) Uncertainty surrounding forward work pipelines and the near-term ability to generate sufficient work to ensure business and worker financial viability.

When designing work environments to minimise psychosocial hazards, Rowe says tools are available through workplace regulators. In NSW, this includes the People at Work tool for conducting psychosocial risk assessments of a workplace environment along with a code of practice for managing these hazards.

When workers disclose mental health concerns, Rowe says several things are essential.

First, it is critical to maintain confidentiality. Any information disclosed to individual managers or colleagues should not be disclosed to others without the worker’s consent.

Next, workplaces should develop their understanding of mental health and mental illness and educate their people about this. This extends from business owners and directors down to managers, supervisors and workers.

Third, it is essential to understand the psychosocial hazards present in the workplace, how these affect the worker, and what can be done to minimise these.

Employers will need to consider the needs of the individual worker and how they can be helped. Upon returning to work, for example, assistance might be granted in terms of flexible work arrangements for a time or help to complete work promptly.

The comments come as many workers in construction and other industries remain affected by COVID restrictions and uncertainty.

In Greater Sydney, 68,303 construction workers who live in eight high-risk local government areas are set to remain unable to work until at least August 28, when current restrictions are scheduled to end.

Last week, meanwhile, more than 90,00 other construction workers from Greater Sydney returned to work after a two-week shutdown whilst workers in South Australia returned from a seven-day snap lockdown (construction has remained open during the current lockdown in Queensland and the recent lockdown in Victoria).

The discussion also comes amid ongoing challenges with mental health in construction. Overall, construction workers are six times more likely to die of suicide than those from a physical workplace industry. Young and culturally and linguistically diverse workers are at particular risk.

Speaking of New South Wales, Green says SafeWork NSW offers several freely available resources via a dedicated page. These are available not only for employers but also for workers and staff.

One such resource involves up to four hours’ worth of direct practical coaching via telephone with an expert. Topics discussed can include developing policies, creating action plans, offering support, and implementing measures.

Another involves mental health training programs run by Black Dog Institute. On program is an interactive webinar through which participants can engage with mental health experts about how to identify and manage mental health challenges in the workplace and on a personal level. Also available are self-paced e-learning modules, which are targeted at either leaders or workers. Topics include:

  • Having conversations about mental health.
  • Designing mentally healthy workplaces.
  • Identifying warning signs that a worker or colleague may have difficulty.
  • Accessing further support.

Finally, Rowe and Green stress the need for employers to access and use available services for their own wellbeing.

This includes resources that are offered to staff.

Green says employers face their own stress in managing and running their business and personal finances and taking on stresses of others such as workers and apprentices.

“As a PCBU (person conducting a business or undertaking), use these services yourself,” Rowe said.

“It is important as leaders and business owners to look after yourself and your own mental health and to assist your workers in being able to do the same.”