Long reads

Navigating a safe and healthy return to the office

27 May 2021 By Elizabeth Howlett

Not everyone is excited about lockdown easing, so HR needs to make sure the transition back to the workplace puts wellbeing front of mind

Yet again, another huge shift in the world of work is occurring as a direct result of the pandemic. The vaccine rollout is proving successful and now many businesses are considering how to open their doors and safely welcome employees back. But depending on who you speak to, returning to work will conjure up very different emotions. 

On the one hand, employees who have either been furloughed or working from home in the longer term may be eager to rejoin the working environment, while others may be wracked with anxiety. And although one in four fit notes issues by GPs in April, May and June 2020 were for a mental health-related condition, and almost one in five employed adults experienced depression between January and March this year, it seems wellbeing is still not high on some employers’ lists of priorities. For example, a poll by Mental Health First Aid England in March found that a quarter of employees have received no mental health check-ins since the start of the pandemic.

Despite the government still advocating home working where possible at the time of going to press, wellbeing is something organisations should be actively addressing now, says mental health consultant Petra Velzeboer, who is all too aware of the building anxiety around when businesses may reopen. “The main pressure points are nerves around public transport, health, adapting to a new routine and having to readjust to working life,” she says. “Being out of the habit means feelings of anxiety can go through the roof, and there will be higher levels of nervousness and hypervigilance about who is around you, or what the protocols are in the workplace.” She adds that even a change in where people are sitting in the office could need an adjustment period. 

And indeed, life during the pandemic has not just changed the way we work but also the way we live, which adds an extra layer of complication when it comes to employee wellbeing. Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, points out that people’s individual circumstances may have changed, whether that’s personally, financially or mentally: “There’s going to be a big range of responses, and I think they will be overlaid by the past experience of the pandemic and all of the different work-related and personal experiences. Some people may now have a different domestic setting, they may have more responsibilities or their commute may have changed.” 

The transition from home working or furlough back into the workplace will need to be treated with a degree of sensitivity, but what is the best approach to take to ensure employee wellbeing is not compromised in the process? Suff suggests taking it slow and steady to give employees time to become more comfortable. “You need to allow a period of adjustment to get people used to returning to a working environment with other people so they can get confident with their organisation’s health and safety measures,” she says. “It has to be tailored towards individual wellbeing needs as much as possible, and it’s going to require a lot of discussion and effort for organisations to get that right.” She warns that if they don’t get it right, employee relations could crumble during a “very tense time”. 

This is the tactic Eugenio Pirri, chief people and culture officer at Dorchester Collection, has adopted in preparing his staff for returning to one of its many luxury hotels across the UK. “The first thing we need to do with concerns about returning to work is address them,” explains Pirri, who has kept in touch with every member of staff since lockdown began, and has introduced training programmes to “re-engage” his workforce with the Covid-safe business. “We are listening intently to all concerns but not thinking we need to have an answer right away. We are just having conversations with them and walking them through the fear, which is sometimes just not knowing what to expect.” He adds that you must take your time and be respectful: “You can’t put the business first; you have to put people first at this stage, and then make the journey together towards a full return to work.” 

Having open communication about health and safety measures is also an effective way to placate any nerves, says Dr Karen Michell, researcher at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. “Employers should listen to workers, understand where they are coming from and then provide them with the information that can allay those fears, such as the hygiene and sanitation processes, one-way systems, social distancing and perspex barriers,” she says, adding that having one conversation would not be enough. “It’s going to be a case of repeating these conversations to find out if their mental health has been affected and if they feel it is improving. Communication will be a key issue in getting these workers back to work.” 

Ensuring the workplace is safe and providing clear information on how the business will keep the risk of catching Covid down is relatively straightforward, but employers cannot guarantee that public transport is safe – a challenge Andy James Picken, workforce health and wellbeing lead at Chesterfield Royal Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, took in his stride. A large proportion of Picken’s workforce travels by bus, so he partnered with Stagecoach to help staff seek assurance on safety measures directly from the operator. He also used salary sacrifice employee benefits to offer an alternative. “A lot of employees took up the cycle to work salary sacrifice scheme last year so we have since increased the value to £5,000 and introduced an e-bike discount,” he explains, adding that not only does it keep staff concerns about public transport at bay, it also helps to improve their mental wellbeing. 

From a legal point of view, Richard Port, principal solicitor at Boardside, assures that as long as employers have done their duty of care to ensure staff are safe in the workplace, the rest is on the employee. “In a black letter law sense, an employee’s commute and personal thoughts on this [returning to work] are theirs to deal with,” he says. “We shouldn’t, however, be dismissive of workers who don’t want to use public transport or are concerned about the workplace, but it will soon become an anxiety that has less credence to it as more people are vaccinated.” 

The return to work will potentially split the workforce into two categories of excited and nervous, but Michell says it’s the individuals who aren’t feeling comfortable that we need to pay attention to. “A lot of workers may have lost a relative, colleague or friend, and the grieving process for them during lockdown has not been normal. They will have to deal with grief and coming back to work at the same time so every case is going to have to be managed.”

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