Speakers at this year’s Duty of Care summit highlighted the importance of mental health and pandemic preparedness

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped to advance thinking and action around staff wellbeing. 

From the need for stringent health and safety measures during the outbreak, through to policies for mental health and remote working and privacy considerations, the COVID-crisis has changed employers’ attitudes for the good.

Speakers at this year’s Duty of Care Summit, hosted by the International SOS Foundation, highlighted the importance of mental health and pandemic preparedness.

Duty of care has become a sharper focus for everyone, explained Lisa Ali, chief people and sustainability officer (CPSO) at Australian-based mining group Newcrest. With staff working at mines around the world, it was essential to have policies which kept employees safe and minimised business disruption, she explained.

“In each of the jurisdictions we had to be very specific in terms of what were the actions we were taking, working closely with all the community leaders, the local governments and the federal governments,” she said in her presentation ‘A Journey Through the Pandemic’. “We negotiated as part of industry groups to ensure the measures we were putting in place were acceptable, as well as uniform across the industry.”

This collaboration and consistency was useful in helping maintain production at ‘fly in, fly out’ operations in jurisdictions such as Papua New Guinea. With staff needing to quarantine for such long periods of time, mental health was as important a priority as physical health for a mobile workforce.

“It was about understanding that we had to do our best to keep families together,” explained Ali. “We took a very systematic approach. We carried out mental health assessments and put in place what were often quite simple measures to help improve things, such as an exercise regime, good quality of food in isolation, making calls to people on a daily basis etc.”

While the pandemic has been a challenge, it has also given organisations an opportunity to “step into the space of mental health and build a new set of skills”, she thinks. “We’ve hosted virtual mental health and wellness master classes across the organisation, giving people the tools and skills to not just recognise what is happening to them, but also to help others.”

Lessons in pandemic preparedness

Health and safety is no longer the responsibility of just one or two stakeholders within an organisation, pointed out Dr Pasi Penttinen, principal expert, Coronavirus and Influenza, European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

He outlined the many lessons learnt in pandemic preparedness, and which are most relevant for private sector organisations. Key amongst these is the need to keep an open mind from a business continuity planning perspective and to be ready to adapt.

“Many of the measures that need to be taken can be planned despite a clear understanding of which disease or virus we’re talking about,” he said. “Early awareness buys time but having that information to hand for companies gives the ability to react.”

Secondary impacts on access to healthcare as a result of the pandemic is another factor employers should consider more in the future.

“In all countries affected by COVID, the normal pathways to healthcare were disrupted for a number of months and it’s important to be prepared for that - all the secondary impacts on the workforce.”

The benefits of improving indoor air quality and social distancing may have lasting benefits for the workforce, beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, said Penttinen. He noted that community mitigation measures had been very successful in preventing the spread of seasonal flu in many parts of the world.

“So longer term, could we minimise the impact of seasonal influenza on the workforce by taking some of these measures in a more structured and organised manner into account? This is an area that will evolve.”

“We are slowly gaining a better understanding of the transmission of respiratory virus by aerosol physicists, especially indoors where most transmission is happening,” he added.

“Much of the evidence pointing to the fact we have been downplaying the role of fine aerosol exposure… which has implications for control measures.”

Content from the Summit is accessible on demand.