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Should I stay or should I go?

Return to work

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Why the Return to Work is Proving Tougher than Expected

At first consideration you might expect the average UK worker to be desperate to get back to the “normality” of their working environment, to meet colleagues not seen for months save for a “Brady Bunch” Zoom collective and a sense of identity rekindled in routine. There’s also the opportunity to be free of the same four walls and as much as you love them, have space from the children and partner (probably a bonus for them too) so you can re-establish working relationships and get to know what’s really happening behind the scenes.

The reality as the data is demonstrating, is far more complex, far more nuanced and in some cases unexpected.

Our state of mind has most certainly shifted since the arrival of Covid-19. Looking at far off countries encountering multiple cases on the ten o’clock news soon escalated to a daily reminder of our fragility as a race and our own mortality. We’ve had a scare and judging by the resurgence in cases, it’s far from over.

Meanwhile our economy has shrunk, we’re in a recession and at a purely basic level we need to get back to work.

Some of you reading this may well respond to that last line by saying “Back to work? We’ve not stopped!” Of course, there are frontline staff and industries that have continued throughout the lockdown period, supermarkets, health sector and others involved in keeping the country’s infrastructure working. But we’re looking at those who’ve been away from the place of work and are now being asked to return.

Research is suggesting that the majority of us are yet to be convinced that employers have provided a safe and secure environment to return to. This is despite as millions being invested in new layouts, safety measures and PPE.

We are worried that we vulnerable to contracting Coronavirus, which is completely understandable given the subject has dominated news, social media, TV shows and the topic practically starts each e-mail, video, phone and in person conversation.

But despite businesses spending on average £60 per employee per month to encourage a return it’s not happening quickly. Digital health company Huma polled 5,000 UK workers and 2,000 employers and discovered just over half (54%) were still reluctant to return to work because of concerns they could catch the virus.

Of those who’ve already made a return an even larger proportion (57%) expressed their concern at the risk of contracting Covid-19 due to a lack of confidence in measures taken by their employers.

With news that the number of adults in the UK reported with depression doubling as of June this year (ONS). Research identified that the majority of those with mental health challenges were suffering with issues as a result of anxiety.

These two factors of a reluctance to return to work and the collective mental state of the country cannot be mutually exclusive, more likely it is cause and effect.

Whilst there has been significant criticism of the Governments communication regarding guidelines and processes relating to managing Covid-19 this in turn makes it difficult for businesses to establish clarity and thereby communicate with confidence. Regardless of this reality, employers owe a duty of care to their employees and must take that responsibility head on.

Here follows a few suggested steps to help tackle the return to work challenge and deliver a happier, productive workforce and thereby a profitable business.

  • At this point business leaders/ owners need to step up and be decisive, clear, proactive and empathise with the current mindset of employees.
  • Where there are practical steps that can be taken to significantly mitigate risks demonstrate them, share the measures and actions taken.
  • Review your Employee Assistance Programme and if necessary, adjust it to accommodate the demand for mental health support.
  • Any staff still on furlough should be included in any communication affecting working practices and surroundings, leaving them out will add to their anxiety not help it.
  • Keep communications simple and clear and frequent, “sense test” messages on a control group of volunteer staff before sending anything that could be considered a trigger for those who are experiencing mental health problems.
  • Research indicates that the younger generation has struggled the most with working from home (See Ipsos MORI article below). In light of these findings establish those who are WFH and in need of additional support and identify mentors who may be well placed to “check in” and support colleagues. Noting of course the need for confidentiality in any disclosed mental or physical health issue.
  • Be prepared to share financial information and strategic plans so staff understand the rationale for certain steps and appreciate that senior management is in control of keeping the business running as effectively as possible.
  • Consider reviewing job roles with a view to Covid-19 being a long-term concern. This can help to provide certainty and assurances to those who find temporary measures unsettling but importantly can help engender confidence and motivate staff if they know what their roe looks like for the foreseeable future.In a nutshell, regardless of the competence or clarity provided by central Government, employers should seize opportunities to establish common sense, practical but caring measures to protect both the employees and the productivity of the business.

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