Leading positive change: how the water sector has made strides in work health and safety through COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has abruptly changed the way we live, placing stress on the psychological wellbeing of many.

As Australian communities begin to control the spread of the virus, there has been a call to shift the focus from ‘flattening the pandemic curve’ to ‘flattening the mental health curve.’ In light of National Safe Work Month this October, Australia’s and New Zealand’s water industry has banded together to spotlight this critical issue.

Making a commitment to safe working conditions

This year, Australia’s National Safe Work Month will focus on Work Health and Safety through COVID-19. Throughout the month of October, employees and employers alike are encouraged to acknowledge and reflect on the wide-reaching impacts of COVID-19.

Since the onset of the pandemic, workplaces have had to quickly adapt their practices to protect against the infection risks associated with COVID-19. Apart from the issues related to physical health, the virus has also had a profound psychological effect on many.

In a bid to highlight the pandemic’s ‘intangible’ ramifications, this year’s theme will enable us to discuss workplace health and safety (WHS) through a psychological lens, focusing on how the pandemic has affected the mental health of Australia’s essential workforce. It will also highlight the critical role that mental health programs play in keeping workers safe.

Navigating mental health through COVID-19

Prior to COVID-19, the topic of mental health was already a pressing issue for Australian communities, with mental illness affecting one in five Australians in any given year.

In addition to the social, emotional and financial challenges that COVID-19 has presented, many front line workers who provide essential services have experienced public scrutiny and abuse during the pandemic. This emphasises the importance of developing a robust WHS and mental health framework to support Australia’s front line employees.

With a workforce of almost 600 people distributed across Australia and New Zealand, leading water infrastructure company, Interflow, is aware of the role that a mentally healthy workplace plays in supporting its people through this difficult time.

For Interflow, the key to addressing mental health within the workplace has been establishing open two-way communication with its people in the office and field.

Interflow’s Senior HSE Business Partner, Troy Dawson, explains how the Company has adapted its mental health strategy to account for the additional challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A key focus for Interflow throughout the COVID-19 period has been promoting our Employee Assistance Program (EAP), holding Stop and Reset Toolbox Talks, and providing resilience training as part of our Mentally Healthy Workplace Project,” he said.

“Not only do these programs help our workforce feel recognised, engaged and supported – but they enable our people to recognise the warning signs that someone may need assistance and then point them in the right direction.”

Keeping WHS a priority in the water sector

The unique size, composition and geographical distribution of Australia’s and New Zealand’s water industry places significant challenges on its members when handling mental health issues.

As the second wave impacts of COVID-19 continue to emerge, the challenge for employers will be implementing meaningful solutions to support the mental health of Australia’s and New Zealand’s essential workforce in the long-term.

The water sector has adopted a collaborative approach to solving this issue, promoting the importance of mental health on an industry-wide scale through a combination of working groups, creative initiatives and information sharing. This camaraderie has not only sparked meaningful conversations about this critical topic but highlighted the fundamental desire for connection and community that we all share as humans.

“The Company’s approach has dug deep to the heart of the issue, which is that mental health issues can affect anyone at any time,” Troy said.

“It’s in everyone’s best interests to hold ourselves accountable and prioritise the creation of a mentally healthy workplace for all.”

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