Covid report focuses on behavioural risk during return to work

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A Teesside expert has won attention for a report advising businesses about behavioural risk during return-to-work period such as the current Covid-19 situation.

While the thought of going back to work after the coronavirus lockdown will be a source of relief for most people, it fills some risk managers with trepidation, particularly those working in high hazard industries.

Research suggests that even highly skilled people will not be able to work at their normal peak performance after months of absence from the workplace or inactivity through job furlough or mandated home working.

This is the concern of organisational behaviour change expert Glenn Ridsdale, managing director of Yarm-based Gauged Solutions, and Scott Moffat, human factors director at Aberdeen’s People Factor Consultants. They have been looking at academic research to better understand the behavioural changes that occur during times of employment absence and financial uncertainty.

Glenn and Scott shared the highlights of this work through a recent webinar for the North East and Cumbria Regional Group of international risk management group IIRSM, which they titled Managing Behavioural Risk During Return To Work (Post Covid-19). The work has attracted interest from the UK, Europe, Middle East and Asia.

Glenn, who is chair of the IIRSM’s regional group, explained: “We have completed a literature review in relation to the subject matter and reviewed similar cases where there have been periods of uncertainty regarding ongoing employment. We’ve examined the impact of this on people’s state of mind and considered the implications when they return to work.”

Scott said that the majority of people are, quite naturally, going to have insecurities regarding employment and also personal anxieties fuelled by social isolation and ongoing news updates in the media.

Concentration is a key element of the Yerkes-Dodson law published in 1908, which states that there is a correlation between peak performance and certain levels of ‘arousal’. In simple terms, think of arousal in terms of being ‘busy’. The busier we are, the better is our performance. However, it takes people a little time to build up to their peak performance

However, the Yerkes-Dodson law also states that being under-aroused or over stretched has a negative effect on performance. Research suggests that this could potentially be the state of mind of the majority of people either furloughed or having to work at home. Under these situations, people can feel anxious and stressed in turn leading to an array of mental health and wellbeing issues.

Glenn added: “Think of it this way: are you going to be really comfortable going on holiday on the first flight out of the airport knowing that the pilot hasn’t flown in a long time, or on an aircraft that has just been serviced by engineers who haven’t touched an engine for many months?”

Scott said a good place to start to understand behaviours and how to design interventions is by looking at Dr Mica Endsley’s work on situational awareness. He explained: “Anxiety and stress can impact on a person’s conscious and automatic decision-making capabilities, so the key is to change a person’s psychological capability in the weeks or months after they return to work.

“It’s not just the technical skills of the employee that diminish in lockdown; a whole range of non-technical skills are affected too, such as stress management, situational awareness, decision-making, teamwork, leadership and communication, and these are all inter-related.”

Previous research conducted has shown that under high levels of stress, human beings struggle to take in and process information and, as a result, their cognitive capability suffers. Stress puts a barrier between short-term (working memory) and long-term memory and although the brain is a powerful organ it is also incredibly lazy; if it comes across a situation it can’t recognise because of stress, the long term memory can easily fill in the blanks based on our own past experiences.

In the large majority of cases, research also suggests that accidents happen during routine procedures rather than new tasks. This is where the brain can create a false.