Future of Work
Health & Safety
Finding the way forward through COVID-19, and beyond
By Jack Burton
Two years after the abrupt and uncertain changes brought to workplaces by COVID-19, many employers are still wondering when these challenges will begin to subside, and perhaps more importantly, how to move forward through the pandemic and beyond.
Since March of 2020, many adjustments and accommodations initially made by employers in response to COVID-19 have evolved into an entirely new status quo for the workplace that the Conference Board of Canada’s director of human capital and workplace health, Erin Mills, along with research associate Lindsay Coffin, believe is here to stay.
They believe “the shift of remote or hybrid work from being an option to the norm or expectation of employees is one of the most obvious yet radical long-term changes moving forward through the pandemic.”
From this change comes an entirely new, more dynamic set of expectations for employees, according to Mills and Coffin, in Ottawa.
“Employers have had to give employees more flexibility around working hours so that they can get their work done while balancing many other priorities,” they said.
And much like remote work, the two see this flexibility as not just a reaction to present circumstances, but a new standard moving forward in how employers engage and support workers.
Showing that these new expectations signal a more permanent shift is a Conference Board of Canada report on attrition published in January, which concluded employers are increasingly adopting “a holistic approach to health benefits and increased corporate social responsibility,” said Mills and Coffin, including increased salaries and employee value propositions.
‘Great Resignation will continue’
This supportive approach becomes more important amongst the labour shortages posing another growing threat to employers as the pandemic continues.
A poll from RBC Thought Leadership in November of 2021 found that over a third of businesses are struggling with staffing shortages across over 870,000 vacant jobs across Canada.
While these circumstances largely come from the two-year stress test that the pandemic has been for both employees’ well-being and organizational talent management, Norm Keith, partner at KPMG Canada in Toronto, is concerned that this trend is set to worsen, even if the pandemic subsides.
“The Great Resignation will continue, in other words,” he said. “There is, even in a recovery, however long and bumpy that is, a year or two of adjustment coming that will make talent retention, motivation, and productivity, I think, probably the No. 1 issue for most organizations.”
For employers looking to mitigate this issue, especially as it threatens to intensify, Keith recommended taking a “back to basics” approach that communicates company values and expectations in a way that can be clearly understood and met by workers.
“I think some employers who are smart will return to the basics of who they are, what their organizational direction is, and seek to motivate employees to be aligned with that direction,” he said.
A key element in accomplishing this — and one that Keith believes employers have been approaching incorrectly — is not getting too far ahead of oneself in terms of goals or company initiatives.
“It kind of goes back to the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If your organization, or an employee’s relationship to it, is not meeting their basic needs, then self-actualization is probably not what you should be thinking about,” he said.
Protecting staff, in more than one way
The dangers of a health crisis such as COVID-19 has reframed workplace safety as a top priority, but by taking the initiative to strengthen organizational workplace health and safety programs, employers can beneficially impact the employee morale or disconnect affecting current retention and recruitment problems.
“I think that it’s a challenging thing for employers, but a solution — and it helps morale — is to be invested in an ongoing basis in workplace safety and health,” said Keith. “Yes, that means COVID, but hopefully we get beyond COVID, and it means a lot more.”
This investment is wide-ranging, he said.
“It means having employee assistance support for both physical and mental health risks, it means being a compassionate employer, but it also means being constructive, engaging through joint health safety committees, listening to employees, and putting in programs and taking steps that employees actually want and make sense to them.”
The high cost of low profit
Looming over the organizational and health and safety challenges posed by COVID-19 is the increasing economic toll that it has brought to numerous industries, especially as the pandemic continues.
“I mean, I don’t really have to tell you, it’s been really difficult for businesses,” said Brendan Rolfe, senior manager of business resources at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business in Penticton, B.C.
“Before the pandemic, most small business owners were barely making minimum wage given all the hours they invest over the week in their business.”
After the last two years, however, Rolfe said that “now what we’re seeing is 70 per cent of businesses owe more than $100,000 in debt. That’s a tough cliff to be looking up at, in terms of having to scale that.”
Rolfe mentioned lockdown-diminished spending patterns, paying staff, higher safety overhead, and increasingly complex or inaccessible subsidies and governmental assistance as challenges to organizations’ futures, bringing with them uncertainty — and increasingly bankruptcy.
“I’ve personally spoken to a number of business owners who now have to face the real possibility of closing their doors, even though they were thriving before the pandemic,” said Rolfe.
Survival not just a question of ‘how’ but ‘why’?
No choice that employers and business owners have made during the pandemic has been easy, though as the economic burden grows heavier, some organizations may be facing their most difficult decision yet: how to survive, and whether that survival is even worth pursuing.
“First and foremost, I’ve recommended our members think about their own mental health,” said Rolfe. “Nothing is more important than somebody’s own personal health, and if you’ve reached the limits of what you can take, then it’s a matter of realizing that maybe it’s time to get out.”
For struggling organizations looking to weather the storm, Rolfe believes that re-evaluation is key, recommending that businesses look to consolidate their services to optimize returns and look to cut expenses through options such as digitization.
It all starts, however, with a return to the main goals of the company itself, he said.
“Businesses who are struggling and looking to survive might consider things like revising their business plans, or writing one in the first place if they don’t have one,” which Rolfe said should serve “to remind themselves of the core things that they did best, that made them successful in the first place.”
Jack Burton is a freelance writer in Toronto.
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