PODCAST HIGHLIGHTS: Your people and the pandemic: Are you doing enough?

How can businesses, especially those with an international footprint, ensure employee health, well-being and security amid the pandemic? Deborah Ritchie spoke to Harriet Brennan and Dr Mark Parrish to find out

Given the dynamic nature of the pandemic and the measures in place to deal with it, how can businesses prepare for what’s potentially to come?

Harriet Brennan: We know that the majority of companies with pre-existing pandemic plans and processes found these effective in reducing the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses. What is key is to remain flexible and agile, to review how business continuity plans have stood up, and to continue to review and update these. Testing plans with scenario-based exercises will help make sure that everyone is aware of their roles and responsibilities.

What new responsibilities do employers have in getting employees back to work and what impact has the pandemic had on duty of care obligations and liability?

Dr Mark Parrish: Duty of care itself hasn’t changed, but it has moved up the agenda. For instance, companies are now looking at risk-based approaches to dealing with potentially vulnerable individuals when travelling. That’s a good thing because COVID is not the only disease around and we’ve got to be aware of a bit of COVID myopia at times.

HB: It’s become evident that organisations which don’t implement appropriate duty of care could be liable to legal implications. In terms of the impact on responsibilities, in the conversations that we’ve had with clients it’s interesting because aspects that may not have necessarily been considered under duty of care before are now. For instance, the commute to the office. Organisations are paying much more attention to this and how it’s managed for their employees. Organisations have a greater responsibility now to ensure that their policies, plans and procedures are up-to-date and that they’re adapted to reflect new complexities.

What considerations and top mitigation techniques are you recommending where most of the work is office-based?

MP: Whilst you cannot remove the risk completely, there are a number of changes that can be made to make the workplace less at risk. For office-based businesses, many of them have successfully continued to run their business with workers remotely over the past four or five months and have decided not to re-open those offices or to operate a hybrid approach. Even if they are opening offices, it may be just a part of it, incorporating Perspex screens, temperature screening, social distancing, one-way systems and ventilation systems. Certain areas should be made as touch-free as possible, and cleaning routines will need to be modified to focus more on the multi-touch surfaces. But, frankly, the majority are telling their staff to stay at home.

How do those recommendations change for customer-facing businesses?

MP: The virus issues are the same of course, but in shops we are seeing only certain numbers being allowed into stores at any given time, and employees in those shops with facemasks and face shields. Hand sanitisers are a must. There have also been lots of other, clever ways that shops are retaining a retail experience for the customer while dealing with the COVID threat. Sometimes what these organisations want is healthcare and some healthcare advice, which has led to much greater uptake of teleconsultations. In just three months, 20 years of bureaucracy in most healthcare systems were moved aside to allow us to tele consult with our clinicians. We’ve been doing teleconsultations at International SOS for at least the last 15 years. It’s a great way to manage 80% of healthcare cases. I think we’ll continue to see more of that as we progress through COVID and even after.

How different are those recommendations for industry?

MP: There is some jolly clever work going on in industry, most of which has remained open and operational throughout – albeit at a lower level of production or manufacturing, and after a brief hiatus to ensure they were COVID safe. Having operated at 25% and then 50% of capacity they’re now moving up to 100%. Industry is full of engineers. Engineers have clever innovations that they’re putting in place in their workplaces. As we’ve walked around factories and industrial sites it has been fascinating to see the variety of solutions they’ve put in place, ways in which they have changed the workflow and modified production where they may usually have people close together. They’re using more robotics and wearing PPE. And, because they’re engineers, they are monitoring, tracking and analysing the data.

What conversations are you having with clients about travel?

HB: Most centre around when to resume travel and what essential or business critical travel may be, as well as how to navigate the different restrictions that we’re seeing globally. It’s clear that starting business travel is an urgent need for many different companies and a return to international travel as well, is a must. But it’s really important to ensure that employees safety continues to be that priority. Businesses need to be prepared for resuming international travel by really focusing on that planning stage before the travel proceeds considering how best to practically organise the travel and understand what the situation is on the ground, in the location that they’re travelling to. Are there any implications due to the traveller’s nationalities? Are there any quarantines? Any transits that need to be made?

MP: This virus doesn’t change around the world. It’s the same virus. The healthcare issues you get are the same. What does change though is country’s responses to it. This is a real challenge. Looking ahead, we’re going to see even more change, including pre-travel questionnaires, screening, testing, temperature screening, extra bag checking time, less moving around on the plane…

And then there are the restrictions you may face at the other end. And if there’s a subsequent lockdown at the destination, you may be there somewhat longer than planned! From a healthcare perspective, prepare for a surprise stay.

To what degree do mental health issues factor in the work you’ve been carrying out?

MP: It’s hard to say there are positives to COVID, but it has made us stop and think about some things, and mental health is one of them. Ten years ago we didn’t talk about mental health. Firms with a good mental health plan including training for their staff and their managers and a way for those staff to access mental health support and regular communication are doing best, not just from a mental health perspective, but overall because they are focusing on their employees.

What challenges has International SOS itself experienced?

HB: We have 26 assistance centres globally that operate 24/7 and these are required to remain open and functioning to support our clients, so we’ve had to deal with many of the same issues ourselves. We anticipated this situation, though, and have the benefit of preparedness from the beginning. That’s not to say though that we haven’t had to adapt some approaches as well, and these change alongside the guidelines.

MP: It’s been fascinating for us. We have about a thousand sites where we are supporting clients and organisations with medical support. Anything from a little clinic in a shipping container to a fully-fledged hospital system with community health and everything else and doing that in the very remotest parts of the world, from let’s say an oil rig in the North Sea or off Nigeria or in the Gulf of Mexico or some other part of the world or the middle of the jungle in Africa or the middle of the desert in Asia. We are running about 10,000 movements every month to move our rotational staff to and from those sites, including our medics, nurses and doctors. It’s been a fascinating logistical challenge. Just yesterday I was talking to one of our team who is looking at one of the sites that we run which is an oil rig off the coast of Africa where we provide the medical support for an oil rig. There are 40 cases of COVID on that oil rig at the moment and they are dealing with that and how to manage that and to get those cases off and to keep the oil platform going whilst producing oil and to deal with the local country’s healthcare system which is challenging while you’re trying to get 40 people in who have COVID. Of those 40 people they are not all nationals of that country. They come from international places and they have to deal with that and get them healthcare. It’s tricky. Every day is different. Every day is fascinating.

Listen to this podcast in full here: https://www.cirmagazine.com/cir/podcast-archives.php

This article was published in the September-October 2020 issue of CIR Magazine.

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