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Should furloughed workers be treated like returning mothers?

22 May 2020 By Alison Loveday

Alison Loveday explains how businesses can effectively manage the re-introduction of workers on the job retention scheme back into the workplace

With little precedent to follow, treating furloughed workers in a similar way to returning mothers may be the answer. There is a natural anxiety among employees returning to work after a lengthy period away. Pre-lockdown this was most commonly seen in women returning from maternity leave or those coming back to work after long-term sickness, yet now it will apply to great swathes of the workforce and employers will need to manage their return carefully. 

Take inspiration from current policies

Most businesses have policies in place for those returning to work after maternity, paternity or sick leave, so this is a good place to start. Keeping in touch days and phased returns are common features of such policies and could be useful for handling furloughed workers. Even if you’re not planning to reintroduce some staff to the workplace for a few months, review your existing policies now and create a clear return to work plan for furloughed workers in advance. 

Out of sight should not mean out of mind

When someone is on maternity leave, keeping in touch (KIT) days are a great way of making sure someone is up to date and engaged in what is happening in a business. The furlough scheme doesn’t allow for someone to carry out work as KIT days do, but the principles are the same. You should keep in touch with employees about their return to work and the developments in the business, whether that be via email to a non-work account or telephone/ video conference calls. Invite them to join social events – online catch ups, quizzes and the like. It will make their transition back into the workplace easier. 

Recognise that not everything will be as it was

A lot has changed in a relatively short space of time. Businesses are kidding themselves if they think that everything will just go back to how it was. That is unlikely to happen this year, if at all. Employers are going to need to adopt unprecedented levels of flexibility to cater for factors such as reduced transport and the likelihood that large parts of their workforce will still be balancing home schooling and/or other caring responsibilities. They may also have a significant number of employees who are classed as vulnerable, or who live with someone in this category, and so who will be particularly anxious about the return to work. Phased returns will not only ease employees back into work, but for many they will be a necessity. 

Listen to individual concerns and act accordingly

Some employees will be happy to return to work, but others will need more reassurance. Of critical importance will be showing that you have made the workplace as safe as it can be. This may mean introducing a range of measures such as different entrances and exits to reduce social contact, considering the use of face masks and whether they should be compulsory for all, and creating clear signs and markings to ensure colleagues keep their distance. The most up to date guidance is available on the HSE website, but make no mistake, the onus is on the employer to make the workplace safe. 

There is so much for businesses to think about right now. Understandably, many will be totally consumed by cashflow. However, with heightened anxiety across all of society, businesses will need to think ahead and show their employees that they have prioritised their health and wellbeing, and are prepared to be flexible in their approach. Those that do so are more likely to be rewarded with a supportive and engaged workforce.

Alison Loveday is a partner at Kennedys

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