Coronavirus pandemic brings changes to working life
During the coronavirus pandemic, a new way of thinking about safety has been created in the workplaces, which should continue also after the pandemic.
The pandemic has affected different industries and employees in different ways. However, what is common for all is that risk management has become more visible in the workplace than before. Health and safety have been emphasised in all work, not only in the traditional fields of industry or healthcare.
“In high-risk workplaces, safety aspects have always been present, but in expert organisations operating in offices, health and safety may have only been a footnote in the company’s occupational health and safety action programme. Now health has become almost the main theme in every company, and the importance of occupational health and safety has grown,” Päivi Rauramo, Expert at the Centre for Occupational Safety.
Not everyone has been able to stay to work from home, although remote work has increased by 60–80% over the past year. In distributed work, risks of infections have been managed with safe distances, good hand hygiene and protection with face masks, and avoiding social contacts and staggering work in the workplace.
It is not advisable to abandon these good practices even after the pandemic.
“There has been a lot of talk about the loneliness in remote work, but the increase in working alone and the mental and physical strain it causes, as well as the safety risk assessments of working alone, have sometimes been forgotten in the general debate. This should also be taken into account when assessing the effects of the coronavirus period and considering solutions,” says Tommi Alanko, Director of Occupational Safety at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.
The risks related to coronavirus have been managed in different ways in different sectors, but in Alanko’s view, people have done their best, and good results have been achieved. Challenges have emerged, for example, in the construction sector, with many workers working at the same time. In the social welfare and health care sector, due to its critical nature, people have worked a lot under a lot of pressure. However, workable and safe solutions have been developed for challenging situations.
In most cases, employers have managed to manage the risks, and it is not advisable to abandon these good practices even after the pandemic. The importance of cleanliness, order and hygiene has been emphasised.
“It would be good to continue applying these hygiene practices we have learned so that workers stay healthy, and influenza and other infections we face every year would not force people to take sick leaves. But, do we go back to shaking hands when meeting people, for example, remains to be seen,” says Rauramo.
The pandemic has kept Rauramo busy, as he trains companies in remote working. In recent months, the demand for educational materials and lectures has been much higher than before.
The popularity of remote working began to grow even before the emergence of the coronavirus. Still, during the pandemic, most of the experts usually working in offices mainly worked from home.
“The remote work experience has been good for those who were not previously been given the opportunity to work remotely, and many companies did have positive experiences. In the future, there will be better opportunities in working life to combine remote working and office work and the benefits of both,” Rauramo says.
After the initial confusion, many have also developed better well-being at work.
According to Rauramo, the adoption of remote working methods has allowed people to balance work and private life even better. Opportunities have also opened up for development and success at work. After the initial confusion, many have also developed better well-being at work.
“People experience achieving more as they can plan their working days more freely and time is not wasted on commuting. There may not be as many interruptions in remote working as there are in office work. Also, learning new things becomes possible as the peace to concentrate leaves more room for insights and the introduction and practice of new digital tools.”
Big digital leaps have been introduced in working life over the past year precisely because of the increase in remote work. Meetings, discussions, interviews, and other encounters are increasingly handled through Teams or other similar digital platforms.
As there are fewer commuting trips, commuting accidents are also less frequent, and working from home has not caused physical injuries in the same way as working on-site.
There are also more remote occupational health care appointments, ergonomics surveys and online meetings with the occupational safety and health officer. These have required a new atmosphere of trust and openness; not everyone feels comfortable speaking about their things in front of a laptop screen, but for some, it is possible to create a safe space to chat at home.
Fiilismittari.fi tells supervisors how the employees feel about their work on a daily or weekly basis.
Rauramo says that the free tools developed by the Centre for Occupational Safety have been in active use recently. For example, the Workload Assessment Tool (Kuormitusvaaka.fi) is an application that allows everyone to assess their own workload but also resource factors. The Luottamustunti team workbook, in turn, allows the work community to actively strengthen trust and make concrete promises of trust.
“It is important not to worry about problems, but also to identify and nurture things that are good,” Rauramo says.
Digitalisation brings continuity and frequency to well-being at work assessments, because answering surveys can be done with little effort, for example, weekly. The Fiilismittari.fi online tool, for example, tells supervisors how the employees feel about their work on a daily or weekly basis. Thus, the supervisor can react quickly if the indicators start to show negative results.
“The supervisor should always know what is going on. During remote working, it should be noted that while some employees are doing great, some might struggle with big challenges on their own,” Rauramo says.
“The results and well-being of work should be monitored at the necessary level. Digital indicators provide information, but it is also good to meet some people face to face as well. Indeed, many have held walking meetings or appointments outdoors, keeping in mind safe distances and wearing face masks.”
New practices have emerged for the identification of hazards and risk assessment, which are the basis of occupational safety, as the nature of work changes into hybrid work, meaning a combination of remote work and on-site work. Occupational health care surveys have become more common, and the threshold for reporting safety issues, for example, may have lowered during the coronavirus pandemic.
Electronic tools bring new opportunities for risk assessment to collect and process information. Reporting incidents online is easy and faster than on paper. The system is available to everyone using mobile phones, for example, which makes it even easier.
“Electronic risk assessment systems are already widely used, and the most common way is to make the traditional paper form electronic, meaning the content is almost the same in both on paper and electronic versions. It is easier to use, but now would be a good time to also assess whether the content should be changed using electronic possibilities,” Alanko says.
“For example, involving all staff through electronic systems can bring new opportunities and perspectives to workplace risk assessment.”
The reports must also be responded to.
The constantly changing situation in companies requires constant updating of risk assessment and a functional method, close co-operation in occupational healthcare and the acquisition of the necessary expertise, guidance, information, and familiarisation.
“The reports must also be responded to, so the person reporting an incident, for example, should be informed that the case will be handled,” Alanko says.
According to Tommi Alanko, the coronavirus pandemic has raised the level of risk management readiness in companies – or at least should have.
“If the pandemic started now, it would be much better prepared. We have learnt important new things about biological threats that will help us cope with other threats as well.”
Risk assessment is anticipation, but nevertheless quite a few companies had considered a pandemic before the outbreak of this one. Therefore, Alanko encourages companies to think about things outside the box and genuinely consider scenarios that could be prepared for.
“It is worth considering whether there are other major similar risks that have been identified but not prepared. One such could be the risks posed by climate change, as, for example, extreme weather affects occupational safety.”