With over 9 million employees put on the furlough scheme at the peak of the pandemic, and many still on the scheme 12 months later, it’s no wonder that there’s an increase in anxiety about returning back to the workplace.
With some employees seeming less than enthusiastic about returning to the workplace, it may be concerning for an employer about how they address this anxiety and what to do if faced with this situation.
From the many Occupational Health consultations we’ve had this past year, we’ve learnt first-hand and also through our clients about the transition back into the workplace for both employees and employers. We’ve been able to get a good picture of the main issues people have been facing and what the underlying cause for the anxiety can be.
As with any anxiety, the cause can be a singular concern or a combination of concerns and when investigating further, each person should be treated as an individual to fully understand their concerns.
A discussion with an empathetic leader is a great place to start. Sometimes, however, a review by an independent occupational health clinician from a SEQOHS-accredited clinic, like Fleet Street Clinic, is required to work out if the employee is fit to continue working, if any adaptations for working are suggested and some circumstances, what medical help is required.
Here are some of the main concerns and issues that have come up time and time again from both employee and employer and how these can be mitigated:
Lack of confidence:
Many furloughed returnees may come back wondering if they can still do their job as well as before, which can manifest into a lack of confidence. With not being at work for a long period of time, certain skill sets may have started to feel ‘rusty’. Worries and concerns about returning to full-time hours from the get go, and having to perform at the same level they were at before they went on furlough are just some examples.
What can help with this?
Early engagement between the employer and the returning employee is important to discuss any specific anxieties and to work out a ‘return plan’ which can really make a difference. ACAS advises employers to think about those returning from furlough as if they have been on maternity or long term sick leave. Using similar ‘check ins’ (as you would for maternity/ sick leave) prior to their return to work allows for real-time conversations to cover the practicalities, potentially a staggered return to build up confidence, as well as an opportunity to discuss any anxieties and concerns.
Concerns over workplace safety:
Two of the most common themes found in consultations with Fleet Street’s Occupational Health Department were employees worried about safety, and whether going back into the office ‘would be the same’.
What can help with this?
To help reduce such anxiety, employers have been encouraged to share with those returning their ‘Covid compliant workplace risk assessments’. HSE made these mandatory last year, although officially they do not have to publish their results internally unless there are over 50 employees. Sharing such information on an individual basis would allow the furloughed employee to see what changes and controls have been put in place, giving them reassurance and peace of mind. It also demonstrates to them that the employer is prioritising their health and safety.
Employers should also consider setting up a ‘virtual tour’ of the amended workplace, to enable those returning to see and understand what their new workplace will look like. Changes such as one-way pathways around the building, socially distanced workstations, extra cleaning of communal areas and bathrooms are just some of the more visual changes. Employers should also take the time to discuss changes in policies such as obligatory wearing of masks, flexible office/home working (if feasible) and other benefits that may have been introduced. Logistical concerns about childcare is one of the major blockers for those returning, and this is another example of how the employer can have open discussion with the returnee to formulate a reasonable solution, preferably weeks ahead of the return to work date.
Concerns over leaving the home:
Returning employees may have concerns about leaving the home and what impact this may have on their health. Other factors employers had to think about were those who were shielding (classified as extremely vulnerable by the Government) and for those living in a household with someone shielding.
What can help with this?
To mitigate this, employers may have chosen to use Occupational Health to contact the employees returning to identify any risk factors or health concerns. Although any medical information would be classified as strictly confidential, the employee and Occupational Health professional discuss the outcome of the assessment which is then simply fed back to HR as ‘fit to return into the office workplace with no adjustments, or with adjustments (then outlined). In the rare circumstance of an employee being assessed as not fit to return to work, a management referral would be indicated. Fleet Street Occupational Health did this for various businesses, and found that many of the employees contacted were appreciative of having been asked about their health in relation to Covid. In a small number of cases, simple and feasible adjustments were recommended – mostly around avoiding a busy commute (flexible working hours were recommended in this instance). Employers fed back confirming the transition for those returning were certainly smoothened by this process.
Mental health may have been affected for all employees for many different reasons, these include bereavement, stress from being at home with home schooling, fear of uncertainty etc. It is important that employers recognise this decline in mental health and look to support their employers.
What can help with this?
Employers should consider making sure that all employees are aware of what counselling services are available, or to train up ‘mental health first aiders’ to carry out weekly group check ins or a ‘return to work’ support group. If the employer would like independent advice from an Occupational Health clinician about where the employee is fit to work, then you may want to consider a management referral. They are primarily designed to support the referring manager in their decision making when dealing with an employee’s health-related issue and to determine the employee’s ongoing fitness to work, this includes mental health concerns.
How can the employer support the return back to the office in general?
Employers might consider a ‘phased return to work’ plan, to allow the furloughed employee to steadily get back into work. Both the employer and the employee want the same thing – to be at their best at work, and so allowing a gradual step up in days and hours (again as if returning from long term sick leave as an example) would be one way of enabling this.
Another thing that might help smoothen the transition back for those returning is a ‘buddy’ system. This is where a returnee is matched up with an employee who has not been on furlough to have them work together for the first few weeks. Not only would this help the returnee to navigate any new changes in the workplace, but it can enable collaborative working and remove the ‘grass is greener’ syndrome from both sides. Some examples of known sentiments include furloughed employees wondering if they’ll have a job to go back to, what it will be like, and a vulnerability about losing their skills etc. Those who remained at work may feel that those on furlough had the ‘easier option’ or feel resentment at not having been given the same option to go on furlough. These are just two sentiments raised from employees during our conducted Occupational Health consultations.
Our list of examples and scenarios outlined are not exhaustive; and we understand that as people we all have specific needs which may be different to others.
We hope that you found the suggestions we have outlined useful, especially in ensuring a smooth transition for those returning, and ultimately an emphatic and supportive working environment for all.
If you require support from our Occupational Health department, you can find more information here.
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