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PHOENIX – The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a variety of workplace disruptions, from forcing employers to build an infrastructure supportive of remote work to figuring out how to deal with hybrid or remote workers experiencing mental health crises, a panel of experts said Wednesday.
One of the often-overlooked results of the pandemic in workers compensation has been the effect that COVID-19 has had on employee mental health, with the issue garnering more attention as many companies continue to offer either a hybrid or all-remote working environment.
And mental health problems not only have the ability to sideline workers in comp claims, but they can also affect job performance of those who remain working, the panelists said during the final day of the 2023 Workers Compensation Research Institute’s Issues & Research Conference.
“It’s something that we don’t necessarily identify as a safety hazard,” Jenny M. Burke, vice president of impairment practice for the Itasca, Illinois-based National Safety Council, said of mental health. “What we aren’t trained to do is identify when people are struggling.”
Ms. Burke said employers and industry experts not only need to identify external safety hazards at job sites, but also need to be better at identifying the “safety risks that are happening inside employees.”
Donna Edwards, president of the Maryland state and D.C. AFL-CIO in Baltimore, said many of her members continue to grapple with the effects of COVID-19.
“People want to say that COVID’s over. Somehow, we’re supposed to say it’s over and it’s done with,” she said. “Nothing’s normal. It really needs to be discussed.”
Evelyn McGill, executive director of the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission in Richmond, said while the pandemic itself may be winding down, leadership presence “must not only continue but strengthen.”
“All of us have been impacted by this, whether you want to admit it or not,” she said.
The panelists spoke during a session titled “Changes in the Workplace,” which touched on COVID-19-related workplace issues and continued challenges.
Ms. McGill said more supervisors are being trained to recognize the signs of mental health among team members as mental health issues can negatively affect work performance.
Ms. Edwards spoke about the importance of first de-stigmatizing mental health before employers can tackle behavioral health issues at the workplace.
“We have got to move beyond that and as leaders that’s where we have to be,” she said.
Paul Kearney, chief claims officer for Lansing, Michigan-based insurer AF Group, recalls trying to alter workplace practices during the beginning of the pandemic, and how the company embarked on a series of listening sessions to solicit ideas from employees on how best to move forward.
A previous move to create a customer portal designed to work in the event of a widespread catastrophe benefitted the company when COVID-19 hit, he said, since it meant IT infrastructure had been shored up.
By the time employees started to return to the office in February 2022, a hybrid model that was already in place continued to enable a mix of at-home and onsite employment practices.
Ms. Burke, of the National Safety Council, said that many of her team members, after given the opportunity, chose to continue working remotely, enabling the company to convert real estate it owned for other use.
And the council heeded its own advice in helping other businesses when it crafted a workplace design for its own employees.
“The heart of our mission is really keeping workplaces safe,” she said.