Managing the fear of Covid-19

Roger Garbutt

As the UK progresses through the Government’s roadmap in May & June, more workplaces will re-open and employees, many of which will have either been working from home or been furloughed will be asked to return. Despite the current low prevalence of Covid-19 across the UK compared to the first and second waves, some uncertainty and reluctance can be expected which employers will need to manage, with several studies suggesting that ‘Covid anxiety syndrome’ could stop people re-integrating due to a fear of public spaces.

This paper is intended to help employers manage their employees fear of Covid-19 and anxieties on returning to work. It is clear that the last fifteen months have been unprecedented, the public has received more regular and sustained information on illness, hospitalisation and deaths than at any other time with arguably a fear-based narrative to drive compliance with lockdown measures. Having constantly taken precautions against infection, it remains to be seen how easily the public will be able to re-adjust their behaviour and perception of risk, especially when the danger is intangible.

When deciding on health protection measures the easier option is to be overly cautious and avoid the harm in question. For example, on the 19th February 2021 a coalition of nine unions and professional bodies warned that reopening schools on 8th March in England at the same time, bringing nearly ten million pupils and staff into circulation would be ‘reckless’ and could risk another spike in Covid-19 infections. In reality there was no increase in infection and the Office for National Statistics reported that only 0.32% of the 4,154 staff and 0.33% of the 11,033 secondary school pupils that had at least one Covid test between 15th and 31st March 2021 tested positive, which is lower than similar snapshots in November and December 2020 when community infection rates were higher. It is also important to recognise the significant upsides in opening schools such as the restarting of normal education, removing the pressure associated with home schooling and enabling children to have more structure, routine, interaction with friends and access to food and physical exercise.

Similarly, the concern that several mass gatherings throughout the UK in March would lead to an increase in infection were also unfounded. Whilst it may be unwise to suggest that continuing through the roadmap will have the same neutral impact on infection rates, it is correct to develop objectivity on the danger presented by returning to work which can be achieved by understanding individual risk perception and determined through risk assessment.

Risk Perception

Risk perception is the subjective judgement that people make about the characteristics and severity of a risk. Unknown risks are usually perceived as more frightening than known ones and we accept risks much more readily if they are voluntary, such as driving a car than if they are involuntary such as exposure to Covid-19. Furthermore, there is generally a greater concern for problems which appear to possess an immediate effect on everyday life than for long-term problems that may affect future generations; in terms of Covid-19 this would be the potential for infection and illness over, for example, the delay in cancer screening or the impact on education due to the closure of schools.

To understand an employee’s reluctance to return to work it can be helpful to understand how they perceive the risk to health which can be broadly classified as follows:

Affective factors

These are emotions and feelings such as fear, outrage and dread which tend to rise up automatically or instinctively in a situation and influence how we react. Emotions may be wide ranging; feelings of loneliness and isolation during lockdown may make it difficult to be resilient, yet those in a positive emotional state are more able to deal with negative information. Employees who dread a return to work will automatically perceive that there is a higher level of risk and more action needs to be taken to reduce the risk.

Cognitive judgements

These are judgements based on the significance of the health risk, tone and volume of media coverage, information accessibility, an understanding of epidemiology and the perceived level of protection provided by risk mitigating measures such as social distancing, vaccination, face coverings, hand sanitizer and contactless services. For example, an individual that has not directly or indirectly experienced Covid infection but continued to work throughout the pandemic at their usual workplace, taking public transport and with a disregard for media may have a lower risk perception compared to those that have worked from home or been furloughed.

Contextual factors

This is how risk information is ‘framed’ and the availability of alternative information sources to provide a comparison. For example, there is a tendency to take preventive actions when outcomes are framed in negative terms such as infection rates, deaths and hospitalisations which has been the default position taken by the mainstream media. Separately, an individual may perceive that their own loss of earnings, debt, strained relationships or a lack of access to on-going healthcare are a greater individual threat than that presented by Covid-19.

Individual factors

These will be personality traits (such as risk aversion, adventurousness, neuroticism), gender, culture, whether the individual or their friends and family have been ill with Covid-19, age, vaccination status, trust, their domestic environment and whether they are deemed to be clinically vulnerable or clinically extremely vulnerable.

Risk Assessment

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) enforce compliance with health & safety legislation throughout the UK in many of the business sectors that have continued to trade during the pandemic. It is notable that the HSE classified the Covid-19 risk in March 2021 as ‘significant’, falling between ‘low’ and ‘serious’.

To understand the HSE’s rationale, the simple matrix below shows how the overall level of harm can be graded using the factors of severity of illness and likelihood of illness.

The severity of harm from Covid-19 (on the vertical axis) does not fall into the highest category as some infections will be asymptomatic or only present mild symptoms, and the severity of recent illness should also be tempered by the vaccine. Similarly, the number of fatalities and hospitalisations as well as individual vulnerability tell us that severity should not be graded as low. With regard to the likelihood of illness (on the horizontal axis) the Government has produced sector specific guidelines on reducing the risk through measures such as ventilation, social distancing, cleaning, hand hygiene etc.

The net result is that in March 2021, in a general workplace context Covid-19 presented, at worst, a medium severity and medium likelihood and like other significant hazards such as fire, working at height and the interaction with moving vehicles needed to be actively managed. With the current reduction in prevalence, it could be argued that the likelihood of Covid-19 illness could now be graded as low such that the overall risk could be classified as low.

Risk Acceptance

Large organisations such as Laing O’Rourke, Balfour Beatty, Johnson Matthey and Diageo have all published a health and safety target of ‘zero harm’ from all workplace risks, which is a good intention but very unlikely to ever be realised. Health and safety legislation is based on the concept of being ‘reasonably practicable’; given that resources are finite there is a point where the cost (finance, time and effort) of risk elimination or reduction outweighs the benefit, so instead the risk has to be managed.

A clear indication of Government policy was given by England’s Chief Medical Adviser, Chris Whitty when speaking at a Royal Society of Medicine webinar in early April where he said the majority of experts believed Covid was ‘not going to go away’ and it would eventually have to be managed in a similar manner to flu.

It is therefore unrealistic to expect Covid-19 to be eliminated and there will be factors outside of our control such as the general prevalence of the virus, variants of concern, seasonality and immunity that will influence the level of risk. To move forwards employers should develop their employees understanding of the nature of the risk, the level of risk (with reference to the risk assessment process) and explain that being risk free is not an option.

Employers cannot guarantee employees that the virus is absent but can demonstrate that the residual risk may be no more significant than other dangers in the workplace and inform on the measures to reduce risk through company-wide briefings and policies. Where individual challenges and anxiety remain, an understanding of how the employee perceives risk with reference to the earlier classifications may be helpful in managing the conversation through Human Resources and influencing behaviour.

Roger Garbutt
Garbutt Safety Management

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