How to support shielding employees as they return to work

Businesses should communicate effectively with their more vulnerable staff, and ensure they prioritise their emotional wellbeing, says Brendan Street

How to support shielding employees as they return to work

In England and Northern Ireland, the formal process of shielding was paused on 1 August, and in Scotland on 31 July, after which those who had been shielding would be able to return to the workplace if it was considered ‘Covid-19 secure’.

Over the past months, vulnerable employees have faced immense challenges and uncertainty, including interruptions to training, career development, seclusion and job insecurity. To ensure workplaces are safe, and shielding employees are supported both emotionally and physically, it is essential businesses provide the required funding, guidance and assistance.

Transparency is key

Anxiety often stems from the unknown. Anxious employees repeatedly ask themselves ‘what if?’ and focus on problems before they’ve occurred. Sharing actionable steps on how shielding employees will be protected and supported by their workplaces on their return will help rationalise these fears.

Businesses should deliver clear guidance, protocols and evidence on the safety procedures put in place to make the workplace ‘Covid-19 secure’ to reassure staff. They should also determine clear channels of communication through which staff can raise concerns about any safety measures and so they know who the best point of contact is to share these with.

Employers must undertake timely and tailored Covid-19 risk assessments with input from expert third-party healthcare providers to cover shielding thoroughly. Any decisions on returning to work should be made on an individual basis.

Encourage feedback

Workplace questionnaires – asking about employees’ experiences of remote working, home and work environments – can be useful with a view to enhancing work-life balance, contact with peers and support from line managers as employees start to return to the workplace.

Armed with the results of this, HR can put in place appropriate coping mechanisms – for shielding employees and the rest of their workforce. Potential actions could involve signposting existing benefits, such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs), or providing guidance and recommendations for line managers as we return to the ‘new normal’.

Prioritise emotional wellbeing

Emotional wellbeing support should be a key topic when discussing employees returning to work, particularly for those who may have been shielding.

Shielding has complex psychological consequences. Many will feel guilt, embarrassment, anxiety and isolation. Staff have also been forced to speak to their employers about their health conditions, which some may not have felt comfortable doing.

According to Nuffield Health’s white paper, The effects of remote working on stress, wellbeing and productivity, mental health issues could develop more frequently among remote workers as they may find themselves separated from communication channels and workplace support.

It’s important to signpost shielding employees towards coping mechanisms and to create a range of personalised interventions to meet their needs and the needs of your entire workforce to effectively reduce stress and burnout. Staff who show signs of distress should be guided towards further emotional support. Employers can highlight existing workplace offerings like EAPs, which offer direct, confidential contact with counsellors and mental health experts to employees.

Businesses could consider inviting an expert to give a virtual company talk. One that provides coping mechanisms specific to the needs of shielding employees would be particularly beneficial. These may help those who are worried about speaking to managers or employers about their fears.

A responsible approach

It’s important to avoid putting pressure on shielding staff to return to work or to take on too much too soon. Instead, consider a graded or phased return to duties. Too much too soon will exacerbate any anxiety concerns that individuals may already be struggling with. Shadowing, observation or mentoring should be offered to sustain a smooth return to work.

Shielding staff should not be threatened with disciplinary action or dismissal if they continue to express workplace safety concerns. In fact, employers should encourage all staff to raise any health and safety concerns and take them seriously. Businesses should work with employees to discuss alternative solutions, such as continuing to work from home or temporarily changing to a safer role if necessary. 

Track ongoing remote working

Some shielding staff may need to continue with remote working for the long term after the government’s shielding scheme ends if they are extremely high risk. In these cases, employers should check in regularly with these employees to ensure they still have a suitable environment and the necessary equipment to work from home.

Nuffield Health research shows spending more than 2.5 days a week working away from the office can also be associated with deterioration in co-worker relationships and job satisfaction. So regular communication is important from a mental health perspective, too.

There are plenty of wellness options that can be offered to remote staff who may be struggling with their emotional wellbeing. These include cognitive behaviour therapy, which can be delivered safely and effectively by phone, video or email for flexibility and privacy. Other types of psychological support, which are also safe, effective and accessible remotely, include counselling (eg relationship, bereavement), interpersonal therapy and access to psychiatric assessments.

Brendan Street is professional head of emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health