Two in five anxious about returning to work, poll finds

Employers should ‘go out of their way’ to address staff concerns, and ensure those first to go back are not made to feel like ‘guinea pigs,’ say experts

More than two-fifths of UK workers are anxious about the prospect of returning to the workplace following the coronavirus outbreak, a CIPD survey has shown.

The poll of 1,000 working adults, conducted by YouGov for the CIPD, found that 44 per cent reported feeling anxious about the prospect of going back to work because of the health risks posed by Covid-19 to them and those close to them.

The survey also revealed that 31 per cent of workers were anxious about commuting to work. This figure jumped to 52 per cent in London, where commutes are often longer.

The findings have led to calls from the CIPD and other experts for employers to make sure they address any employee concerns when planning their return to more normal working patterns, and for the government to recognise legitimate employee concerns in its new guidance – expected to be released today and tomorrow.

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said returning to the workplace needed to be “mutually agreed” by employees and employers, and that organisations should “go out of their way” to address any concerns.

“Employers must bring people back gradually, when required, and learn from each person’s experience, building employees’ trust in the business to treat them well,” said Cheese.

Cheese also warned that the next phase of the government’s plan to ease lockdown – announced by the prime minister yesterday (10 May) – would be “unique and more complicated” for employers to navigate compared to the lockdown. He said that the current draft of employer guidance did not “sufficiently recognise that many individuals will not feel safe enough to return to the workplace”.

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On Sunday, Boris Johnson announced that workers in England unable to do their jobs from home, such as those in construction or manufacturing, should be “encouraged to go to work”, but stressed these employees should avoid public transport where possible.

Speaking this morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, foreign secretary Dominic Raab said that updated sector-specific guidance for workplace safety would be published on Tuesday (12 May), and employers could begin bringing people back to work from Wednesday (13 May).

Following the latest announcement, Louise Aston, wellbeing director at Business in the Community (BITC), said retaining employee confidence in their organisation’s ability to protect their physical and psychological health was a key consideration for responsible employers. Nonetheless, businesses should start preparing for a return to work, she said.

“Although there is widespread unease about [relaxation of lockdown], particularly with people who have underlying mental health conditions, including OCD and anxiety, BITC recommends that all employers prepare employees for a healthy return to work, providing confidence and assurance that it’s safe to return,” Aston said.

Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind, said it would be challenging for people to readjust as lockdown measures began to relax, and warned that workers in the sectors first to go back risked being made to feel like “guinea pigs”. “Employers are understandably keen for more guidance on how exactly to manage employees returning to work and we hope this will be forthcoming,” she said.

Mamo advised employers to solicit anonymous feedback from staff on how the transition back to work could best be handled, and to accommodate any reasonable requests made by workers. For example, employers could introduce a phased return by gradually reducing the number of days per week that employees worked from home, or encourage staff concerned about public transport to take up a cycle to work loan scheme.

She added the return to work could provide an opportunity to continue ways of working that had proved beneficial during the crisis. “If there’s anything that had an unexpected benefit in terms of morale or productivity, that could be retained – it might help with transitioning forward for everyone,” Mamo said.