‘Psychosocial risk’ at the fore in hospitality sector

Out-Law News | 10 Jun 2021 | 8:25 am |

Zoe Betts tells HRNews about protecting employees’ mental health as they return to work in the hospitality sector
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  • Transcript

    As you will be well aware, the UK hospitality sector has reopened but how are employees coping? Short staffed, busier than ever and, in many cases, required to police customers in line with strict Covid measures, are employers doing enough to protect the mental wellbeing of their staff?

    This is now a big issue for the sector and one that has been flagged by our health and safety team in an Outlaw article ‘Protect staff as UK hospitality sector reopens’ reminding employers they have a legal duty protect workers from stress in the workplace. They highlight how new requirements for staff to be able to police strict controls such as limited time slots, social distancing, restrictions on social group sizes and curfews will place additional demands on them. The advice to employers is to undertake a risk assessment because a failure to do so could result in enforcement action and fines. 

    The enforcement body is, of course, the HSE and there is no doubt they have a focus on mental wellbeing like never before. Last year we saw the new ISO standard introduced which deals with psychological health and safety. ISO 45003 is designed to protect mental wellbeing through proper regulation and the promotion of best practices in the sector. 

    So, that’s the theory but have we seen that focus on mental wellbeing in practice in this sector? Let’s find out from health and safety specialist Zoe Betts who joined me by video-link to discuss it. I started by asking whether her team has seen a change in emphasis towards mental health:

    Zoe Betts: “Yes, we are, definitely, and I think before the pandemic we were seeing an emphasis on health and not just traditional safety. There's a phrase in health and safety, in HR particularly, which is that people have been ‘shouting about safety but whispering about health’ and I think what we're seeing now - and the pandemic is heightened this - is a real focus on occupational health and wellbeing and that absolutely encompasses mental health. I think everybody accepts that the pandemic has forced employers to think about their work, the risks arising from their activity, and how they need to look after their employees in entirely new ways, but what we mustn't forget is as we come out of the lockdown, especially with the hospitality sector opening up really as the first main industry, is that it isn't just physical risks that employers need to guard against, it isn't just making that workplace COVID secure and giving physical measures, whether it's cleaning measures, PPE, masks, sanitizers, to their employees, that's all well and good, but I think what we've really got to focus on is the mental health side of this. There will be a lot of workers out there who have been out of work, have maybe lost money, might have been in difficulties financially, have been on furlough, have simply been isolated in the true sense of the word, and they will be nervous about coming back to work. They may have lost loved ones, they may be nervous about getting ill at work and they may be very nervous, if I'm honest, about being in some sort of a policing role where they are being asked, or required, as part of their job to see that customers, people who are coming in for food and drink and particularly alcohol, are following the rules. It is quite a big ask, I feel, for relatively young, often inexperienced people in quite a frontline role. So, that's something an employer, who has a duty under health and safety law to take reasonably practicable steps to safeguard their workers’ health, that's got to be taken into consideration.”

    Joe Glavina: “Turning to risk assessments, the HSE has emphasised the need for employers to consider ‘psychosocial’ risk as part of the assessment. What does that mean?”

    Zoe Betts: “Yes, that’s true. Psychosocial risk is a phrase that we wouldn't necessarily have been banding around a few years ago but, again, it's something which has come to the fore and I think it is an understanding that this is not just about somebody's physical safety, there is a lot going on with mental health, and the employer in the workplace is a huge part of that. When you think about how many hours people spend at work then it is incumbent upon the employer to consider what psychological support employees may need. It is also probably relevant to mention that there is a new global standard emerging this year, ISO 45003, and that is the first global standard giving practical guidance and promoting best practice in managing psychological health in the workplace. So that's something that people should be aware of. It's not compulsory, but it is something that businesses may want to look into, or may want to adopt, because it really is a management structure and better regulation for managing that psychosocial risk in the workplace.”

    Joe Glavina: “I see in the Outlaw article, aside from the legal duties, the advice to employers is to try to create a culture where workers feel able and equipped to take on the new challenges that Covid-19 has created for the hospitality sector. I’m assuming you agree with that?”

    Zoe Betts: “I absolutely do, and I've been giving advice to clients for many, many years about improving their health and safety culture in particular. Culture is very difficult to define, it can seem woolly, it’s a bit like nailing jelly to the wall, what is a culture? You tend to know when you see one, especially a bad one, I have to say, but there are some very real and tangible benefits to having a positive health and safety and HR culture and that’s what we talk to our clients about all the time. What you don't want is to be seen as an employer that really doesn't care about its workforce, it just wants to get the product out the door at the end of the day, make the money, make the bottom line. This is about people. This is not fluffy and woolly. This is about your workforce, trying to prevent sick leave, trying to prevent paying out on sick pay and then having to cover those people, trying to retain your talent, trying to time to prevent high turnover. I think, more so than ever, people, when they look for jobs do their research. They look at a company's culture, they look at how that company promotes itself, they will take recommendations and word of mouth and I think it would be very short sighted for an employer to believe that disregarding the workforce’s welfare is a good thing to do and that it's not going to have a negative impact on reputation, because in my view, it absolutely will.”

    Joe Glavina: “Last question Zoe. We know that the HSE frequently uses targeted inspections in order to drive up standards. Have you seen evidence of that?” 
     
    Zoe Betts: “Yes, I have. I don't want to overstate the issue and I think it's always going to be the case that the Health and Safety Executive will investigate and traditional issues relating to safety and occupational health, whether that's guarding, or work at height, or manual handling, those issues will always be around but I think I am very well placed to comment and I've been giving advice to my clients for some time about the need to consider mental health. There is a lot of guidance out there on stress management and HSE have put a wealth of information on its own website and they will absolutely ask those questions during those targeting inspections that you just referred to. I think, to put this in its proper context, and this is what we say to clients, there is no doubt there won't be a mass of enforcement action or prosecutions, in my view, relating to stress management. I think it's quite difficult to prove because stress in the workplace is so inextricably linked to other issues. It could be difficult from an evidential point of view but that's a different matter. I think when we come back to culture, and actually what the HSE may be looking for to see what steps an employer is taking to safeguard the health and safety and wellbeing of their employees in the round, then they would be really concerned to understand what an employer has done to consider stress and to consider mental health and that will only increase because of the pandemic, these issues have really come to the fore. So, an employer I think would be taking a risk if it turned a blind eye to those sorts of issues. If it doesn't have an answer to the HSE’s questions on stress and mental health I don't think you will be looking at a prosecution but I think you could be looking at an improvement notice and that in itself is serious for many businesses.”

    That article we mentioned by our health and safety team which was written shortly before the lifting of the 17 May lockdown restrictions. It is called ‘Protect staff as UK hospitality sector reopens’ and you can find it on the Outlaw website.