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Coronavirus and workplace culture

To say the least, the Coronavirus pandemic has taken us all by surprise.

Presently, that is, the middle of March 2020 there is no vaccine and limited treatment for the infection beyond paracetamol and similar drugs which reduce fever, along with some experimental anti-viral drugs. For those who develop the severest symptoms there is the use of a ventilator to assist breathing. Basically, it’s down to our own immune systems to do the work, which is seemingly why children are less susceptible than those over 70.

The strategy for containing and mitigating infection seems to be an evolving one, but has mainly consisted of minimising social contact, as in pubs, clubs, and theatres, together with enhanced hand hygiene. Most people seem to think these measures make a certain amount of sense even if they disagree about their effectiveness.

Whatever the eventual outcome of this pandemic, there are lessons already becoming clear, the first of which is that this could happen again. Some scientists have already suggested that we should treat this as a trial run for a much more deadly virus that will inevitably emerge. Inevitable, that is, unless we change the way we do things. These are big, big, issues, and the implications for globalisation, extended supply chains, and world travel are too great to begin to unpick in this short blog. But let’s go back to the lessons that we could learn and which we could put into practice.

Any properly run organisation should have a contingency plan, perhaps as distinct emergency action and recovery plans, and we have talked a lot in recent years about resilience – or “how to roll with the punches”. But let’s take a step back in the chain of events and think about prevention and protection for a moment.

The pandemic is a phenomenon that does not have its origin in workplace practices, so, unlike an outbreak of legionella, or cluster of cases of occupational cancer, the usual tools of investigation to discover causes, and make recommendations to fix the problem, cannot be applied. As somebody who ought to have been a bit more helpful explained, ‘we are where we are’. They were possibly trying to say that the situation is one that has developed without our actively promoting it, and is one in which we have to find a way of continuing on with our lives and our work while of course complying with everything that society expects of us. They could have added ’keep calm and carry on’, but this isn’t quite what we are trying to achieve. Since we didn’t cause it, and we can’t fix it, does this mean we should be completely resigned to our fate? Hopefully not.

Does workplace culture play any part in this? Yes, of course it does. As a nation we are very sceptical of our leaders, even if we decide to hand them the reins of power for a while to see what sort of job they can do. But we do want leaders and experience shows we do respond well to good leadership, and not just leadership in a crisis, or delivered by press conference. Our scope for action is admittedly limited but there are things we can do, and one of the most obvious, the easiest, and the cheapest, is hand-washing. And yet not everybody does it. We can see this happening at work and in public, and maybe it happens at home too. We can see this failure to do the simplest and most obvious things in other settings too: failure to comply with speed limits, failure to wear PPE, failure to follow safe systems of work. There may be many reasons why this happens, though they will usually feature the elements of attitude, competence, perception and belief.

The interaction between what goes on at work and life outside of work is complex, but it is possible to see that some aspects of ‘good behaviour’ at work are carried over to home life. The public, and that’s all of us, are probably more careful in their handling of some of the more obvious hazards they may encounter at home, such as electricity and chemical hazards, often as a result of training they received at work. Training and good leadership in the work setting can positively influence behaviour in society generally, just look at the way reverse parking is becoming much more the done thing in public places. The lessons carry over, - not always, - but a lot of the time.

Imagine the scene; a trusted supervisor, known to be competent and informed, looks you in the eye and demonstrates how and when to sanitize your hands, explains why this is necessary and reinforces the value we bring to the workplace by doing this consistently. When we throw in management commitment, provision of adequate resources, and clear unambiguous communication, we could even have a game changer. It’s certainly worth a try, and we might be ready the next time a pandemic comes round.

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