NSW agency launches resources on workforce sustainability and recovery following COVID-19

By Shannon Jenkins

Friday May 22, 2020

The secretary of NSW’s environment department is leaving the role after just two months. (Image: Adobe/ Keitma)

Front line public servants will need “specialised support and attention” as Australia moves into the recovery phase of the pandemic and staff return to their workplace, according to a new report.

New South Wales government agency icare has released a research report on the impact of public health emergencies on the sustainability and recovery of the state’s workforce, along with an employer toolkit on transitioning the workforce.

Based on a literature review of 70 papers from the past 100 years of epidemics, pandemics, and crisis situations, the research found that reintroduction of the workforce following a period of social isolation must be “managed with care and foresight” to minimise the potential health impacts, with a phased recovery process.

It noted protective strategies should be re-introduced to the workforce at the implementation of each phase, with ongoing monitoring of health and safety practices that cover a range of areas.

Some industries would require specialised support and attention, including government front line workers, such as Service NSW staff, the report found.

“Roles with greater exposure, on a day to day basis, increase the level of perceived risk and have a potential to increase psychological distress, for example Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and anxiety,” it said.

Some health care, retail, and emergency services workers, and people with large families, pre-existing mental health conditions, low socioeconomic backgrounds, and low levels of education, were also found to be at risk.

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The report offered myriad recommendations for leaders and employees, covering areas from communication and training, to pandemic planning and mental health support.

For example, when communicating with staff, icare said employers should provide information on the awareness of risky behaviours like anxiety, discrimination,or increased substance abuse, and details about workplace support resources.

The report noted it was important to address any employee perceptions of mental health stigma that may prevent engagement with services.

Leaders could also provide good news stories and case studies, clear communications about pandemic-related policy changes, and information on the importance of a healthy lifestyle.

Additional training and support should be made available to managers, supervisors, and leaders, the report said, including in areas such as critical incidents, responding, infection control, psychological preparedness and disaster aspects.

The report warned against the spread of misinformation, and the negative impacts of overexposure to the media. Research suggested there was a need for people to limit their intake of repetitious media coverage that provides little new information, “while still remaining up-to-date with critical information as it develops”.

“In addition, public health communicators should address the role of social media in risk perceptions of community members,” the report said.

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Leadership should also focus on making staff feel and be safe, recognise the effort staff make “to bring business back to a version of normal”, clarify roles (especially if they have been impacted by changed workplace practices), and “provide executive support for leaders for their efforts in recognising the potential stressful impact of bringing the workforce back under new policies and frameworks”.

Things staff could do to make the transition to work easier included preparing to adjust to a new environment, practising stress management, communicating about survivor’s guilt or grief for those who have lost co-workers, pandemic planning, and joining non-clinical forums in the community for personal sharing and support.

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