As social distancing restrictions begin to ease and the long awaited ‘new normal’ in terms of business operations starts to take effect, our Head of HR and IT, Julie Wootton, reviews the lessons learned over the past 18 months. She also explains how Covid-19 considerations have served to shape best practice at EPC-UK, resulting in our recent achievement in receiving two further health, safety and wellbeing award accolades.
Making health and wellbeing matter
Recognised as a company that consistently prioritises mental and physical health and safety, we accelerated our already exemplary level of safety ambassadorship as soon as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in 2020.
Acutely aware of the detrimental effect social isolation could have on our operation’s personnel, Julie put a programme in place to ensure no EPC-UK employee would feel lonely or a sense of being left behind. Her first plan of action was to pick up the phone and keep conversation flowing; a basic, yet highly effective tool she continues to regard as essential HR practice:
“At the height of the first lockdown around 50% of our employees were on furlough; many for business reasons and some because they were deemed vulnerable,” she says. “So, I called every furloughed employee on a weekly basis to check they were okay. Every Thursday and Friday I’d make around 100 phone calls!
“It was really important to check how people were doing, ask if they had symptoms or if there was anything they needed, and just keep in touch – especially as we have a number of employees who live alone.
“We were quick to take communications online and begin regular catch-ups with remote workers through Microsoft Teams. We shared information using WhatsApp and devised ‘extra-curricular’ events in the form of virtual coffee breaks and quizzes, developing new practices that we’re committed to continuing as the industry begins to realign.”
Prioritising vulnerable workers
Throughout the pandemic, Julie’s considered communications strategy succeeded in offering an outlet for vulnerable employees to keep in touch with management – and vice versa – whenever the need was felt.
The company has around 30 employees who are governmentally categorised as vulnerable and were required to shield during the first wave. As the question of employees returning to work came into focus months later, Julie took a cautious approach.
“All relevant risk assessments and return-to-work protocols were completed for our various operations,” she says, “and were shared with our occupational health provider who reported extremely positive feedback, describing our risk assessments as not only comprehensive, but the best they’d seen, which was great.
“However, for our high-risk employees – those deemed vulnerable – we wanted to take a different route to supporting their return to the workplace.”
Working with our OH provider, we put an individualised return-to-work protocol in place for our vulnerable employees. The OH service conducted a 45-minute one-to-one interview with each employee then produced a comprehensive report which included recommendations on whether the individual should return and, if so, what precautions should be implemented. We consulted with individuals throughout the process:
“Managers sat down with employees on their return and conducted a ‘re-induction’ that covered all the risk assessments together with the measures we’d designed to keep personnel safe, helping individuals to feel confident about returning. Looking to the future, this level of individual communication care will form part of our continued HR methodology.”
Of the high-risk employees, the majority have now successfully and confidently returned to work. However, for those yet to come back because of their vulnerability, we have committed to demonstrating our support and ensuring appropriate considerations are made, including a requirement to work at home scheme; restrictions on travel and customer meetings; and close adherence to the “hand, face, space” guidance.
“Without doubt, all the Covid Safe procedures we’ve implemented have involved a collaborative delivery approach,” Julie adds, “which in turn has rewarded us with companywide understanding and strategy support. This again has been seen as a success that will be drawn into our ongoing way of working.”
Throughout the pandemic, she prioritised employee responses to our company’s handling of the situation. Using completed surveys to ascertain the success of the safety measures introduced provided her with insight into operations at the time, and offered guidance for the future: did our company respond quickly enough? Did we respond effectively? What more could we do?
Responses to Julie’s questionnaires were overwhelmingly encouraging, with 96% of questions answered positively, further supporting the impressive double award accolades our company has been proud to achieve.
Double award success
During the pandemic period, EPC-UK has been presented with not one, but two highly impressive award accolades, both recognising our company’s health, safety, and wellbeing achievements. EPC-UK received the RoSPA Silver Award for Health and Safety Performance for the January to December 2020 period, and our company’s own Managing Director, Ben Williams, was celebrated with the accolade of ‘CEO Award – joint highly commended’ by the judging panel of the British Safety Council 2021 International Safety Awards.
An internationally-recognised commendation, the RoSPA award was received by EPC-UK in recognition of our high health and safety standards. Organisations receiving a RoSPA Award are credited as being world-leaders in health and safety practice. As judges were assessing EPC-UK’s performance during the Covid-19 timeframe, significant note was made of the many acute self-care challenges the situation presented and the successes our company achieved in ensuring occupational health, risk assessment, care in the community and physical and mental health wellbeing.
British Safety Council acclaim
Further acknowledging the company’s concerted efforts, our Managing Director Ben Williams has also received a prized accolade. He was presented with the ‘CEO Award – joint highly commended’ from the judging panel of the British Safety Council 2021 International Safety Awards, confirming his personal efforts in protecting EPC-UK employees from risk and physical and mental ill health at work in recent months, and honouring him as one of the very few to be revered by this prestigious award programme.
The judging panel considered Ben’s leadership approach to be reflective of a Managing Director who values his own core beliefs as well as the EPC-UK company SPIRIT ethos with an evident and prevailing focus on placing safety and wellbeing as paramount.
Communication is the key
Reflecting on the achievements, Julie cites our company’s clear and consistent communication methods as major contributory factors in both the award commendations and successful 2020/21 Covid company strategy. “I consider the increasing willingness of our personnel to talk about health and, in particular, mental health, to be a positive, secondary response to recent adversities. Whilst we can finally look forward to the return of more familiar times, we won’t be leaving the communication channels we developed during lockdown behind. We’ll continue to deliver upon the strategies that have served our personnel so well. For example, we’re proud to report that now more than 60 employees have chosen to take Mental Health First Aid training, and efforts to encourage openness about mental health within the company have been led from the top, driven by Ben Williams’ honesty in discussing its critical importance during company safety tours.
“He has talked to employees about his own family’s battle with Covid,” she notes, “which has helped to break down barriers and foster further our company’s culture of impartiality.”
Reviewing the position for their vulnerable employees – Julie believes that the employer-employee relationship is closer than ever, even in the context of remote working remaining a requirement for many.
“Again, effective communication has been essential to ensuring that our employees’ return-to-work has been a smooth and positive experience, with all previous measures serving to set the stage for a safe and transparent ‘come back’ for the physical working environment.
“Now, as the UK eases lockdown restrictions, we feel our greatest risk is complacency. The country will continue to open-up once again; however, we will remain vigilant, considering it unlikely that our operating model will return to its pre-pandemic position.”
“During a period that none of us could have anticipated, we have made health, safety and mental wellbeing the priority for each person, whatever their circumstances and with a constant mind to make effective methods our best practice moving forward,” Ben Williams added. “I can’t commend highly enough the considerations put in place by our hardworking Management Team. The lessons learned during this unprecedented period have been valuable and will contribute to EPC-UK becoming an even better and more employee-focused company, fit for the future.”