Coping with workplace challenges in the face of COVID-19: SAGE recommended solutions

26 June 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on Australia’s research and academic workforce, and the effects are likely to be felt for an extended period. How can employers and employees react to these challenges? SAGE has compiled a list of solutions from international and national program guidelines, as well as advice from SAGE-affiliated institutions.

The economic effects on universities and research organisations will be significant due to the loss of funding from overseas students and declining business research spending and philanthropy, which has been identified in a report on the Impact of the pandemic on Australia’s research workforce. Individuals are facing challenges such as job insecurity and disrupted working conditions, and many of the impacts will disproportionately affect vulnerable groups.

Dean of Engineering and Computer Science Professor Elanor Huntington is responsible for around 350 staff at The Australian National University and has seen the impacts of university shutdowns first-hand. “All of our researchers are locked off campus at the moment and unable to access labs,” she said in May. “Like every other university, most of our junior staff are employed on shorter-term contracts and we’re doing our best to mitigate economic downturn impacts.”

Professor Huntington was one of the contributors to the research report on The impact of COVID-19 on women in the STEM workforce, available through the Rapid Research Information Forum. One of the key issues identified in the brief is that COVID-19 will disproportionately affect women in STEM. “Women are more represented in the casualised and junior workforce in STEM,” says Professor Huntington, referring to the sectors of the research workforce which are at a high risk of job losses.

Remote work comes with its own particularly challenge for academics, and some of the challenges will be felt more strongly by parents and carers. “There’s going to be a fairly strong gender skew in the situation right now,” says Professor Huntington. “There’s a whole bunch of impacts that will flow out over the short and long term.”

The following list of solutions for employers has been compiled with the aim of minimising the adverse impacts of the pandemic and protecting the wellbeing of the entire workforce.

List of SAGE recommended solutions for employers

  • Identify your most vulnerable employee groups. Apart from contract term, this could also be based on visa status, age, pregnancy or parenting, single parents, high-risk (in terms of the nature of their duties) workers, or those with disabilities or who have children with disabilities.  Have you asked them what their needs are? Can you allocate special assistance to them? More info: available in the UN Women’s Interim Guidance Note

  • Offer employees special assistance, such as flexible work options. If you don’t already offer or use flex work options such as flex time/location/roles, see if they could work for your staff in these times. If flex work arrangements are not possible, consider providing childcare support. Once again, ensure the coverage of the workers most in need. Measures should ideally reflect the varied needs of workers, e.g. on-site childcare centres (as appropriate in the context of COVID-19), emergency childcare, schooling for front-line workers’ children (including health workers and other care workers), childcare allowances, childcare referral systems and collaboration with external childcare providers for emergency situations (private or public).  More info: UN Women’s Interim Guidance Note
  • Manage contracts and leave arrangements. In many places, fixed-term staff who can work from home are continuing to work and be paid. Those who can’t are furloughed with salaries topped up (after JobKeeper payments). At the Australian Academy of Science, staff can donate personal/annual leave into a ‘leave pool’ so those who need to take leave beyond their own entitlements can do so. This might allow people to move to reduced hours to balance responsibilities.
  • Look after casual workers. In some places, casual staff will receive paid sick leave if they have, or are suspecting of having, COVID-19; if they have to self-isolate; or if they have to care for someone who has COVID-19/has to self-isolate (but not for sick leave not related to COVID). In some cases, this is for a limited time – two weeks’ income seems to be common. Some institutions have a special payment for casuals whose work has effectively ended and where there is no alternative work to perform, or if they can’t come to work because of closure. Again, a two-week payment seems common and this is often based on either rostered hours or the average of hours done in the four weeks pre-shut down.  It’s worth exploring whether any work can be undertaken by casuals at home (in line with contract hours). Maybe this could be an opportunity to support more writing of papers/grants, etc.

    More SAGE recommended solutions for employers:

  • Are there opportunities to “share” talent with other institutions/industries for a period of time? This might support workers in developing new skills and new networks (and minimize cost and time associated with traditional employment transitions, e.g., reductions in workforce/furloughs, application for unemployment benefits, applying for new positions).
  • Exploring funding opportunities for COVID research (if that is in the institution’s scope)
  • Think about the impact of the organisation’s COVID-19 response on your ‘brand’, not just the bottomline (e.g. doing merely what is legal vs what is ethical).
  • Ensure that any economic investment during and post-crisis is not focused on sectors of your organisation which largely employ men over women (or vice versa, if your gender composition is skewed towards women).

5 ways to boost staff morale

  • Improve communications. Employees want to receive clear communication from leadership about the organisation’s approach to the new landscape with the virus in order to feel safe in their jobs and work efforts. Clearly articulate key policies and procedures. As an example, Edith Cowan University has a number of resources for staff, including managers and supervisors, on managing fixed-term and casual employment contracts during COVID-19. While they aren’t necessarily about maintaining employment, they are quite clear documents to provide clarity and transparency for decision-making.
  • Share mental health tips and resources. Given that financial and job insecurity are leading sources of stress, prioritise communicating tips and resources such as virtual and tele-health services to help boost employees’ mental health. More info: World Economic Forum White Paper: Workforce Principles for COVID
  • Train managers to support employees. Empower local leaders and managers with rapid access to accurate information about the institution strategy, protocols and rules. Local leaders need to have the authority to effectively address local issues on a real-time basis. In addition, managers should be trained to support employees as they deal with their personal challenges – for example, through stress management programs, counseling and flexible work arrangements.
  • Agree on priority tasks to support workers to be as productive as possible in the context of additional care and family responsibilities. Revise performance benchmarks so that they are appropriate to the current situation. Ensure that all supervisors demonstrate flexibility in cases of teleworking.

  • Tell employees they are valued. Keep employees motivated by assuring them that their work is valued and purposeful. Ensure all workers are entitled to workplace support measures, and that all workers know about them, understand them and feel comfortable using them (see communications point above!). Focus on the most disadvantaged (e.g. less protected and low paid). Assess the efficacy and inclusivity of workplace support measures via (virtual) consultation with workplace reps (or the SAT), and quickly adapt where needed.  Make sure all staff (including casuals) are invited to any virtual events to help employees stay connected (happy hours/coffee meetings etc.). More info: UN Women’s Interim Guidance Note

Solutions for major corporations

Some of the actions major corporations have been carrying out include the following:

  • Subsidising meal delivery services to reduce housework for time-poor parents/carers
  • Developing targeted support for employees who are in high-stress, high-load roles because of COVID-19, e.g. IT staff
  • Withholding annual salary increases and bonuses for execs, managers and salaried employees. Some companies are reducing senior exec salaries.

You can read more about the initiatives of individual companies in the following articles:

Solutions for universities

The following links relate to measures that universities are taking to help staff:

Post-COVID advice

Many of these solutions are not just applicable during the COVID-19 pandemic and associated shutdowns. The following recommendations highlight key focus areas in all workplaces moving into the future:

  • Include women (especially those who have gender expertise, if possible) in your crisis management/recovery decision-making.
  • Include gender-sensitive analysis in any impact assessments you conduct.
  • Extend access to employment protections for staff who don’t already have them (e.g. casuals).
  • Improve funding for childcare and elder care.
  • Prioritise or have dedicated funding for those who have high-load unpaid care roles and high-load low-paid work roles.
  • Use work communications to encourage men and women to share caring duties at home.
  • Look at how this situation might affect any assessment relative-to-opportunity you use

  1. Neilson, E & Dorney, G. HRM, 17 March 2020
  2. Stahl, A. Forbes, 3 April 2020
  3. UNICEF, International Labour Organization & UN Women, Interim recommendations, 27 March 2020
  4. World Economic Forum. White paper, 31 March 2020
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