How to support employees’ return to work after lockdown is lifted

Some employees may not want to return to work once the COVID-19 lockdown is eased. But how to support the mental health of those who do?

Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing, Nuffield Health, shares what is needed to help employees return to work.

As countries in Europe begin to ease some of the Coronavirus-related restrictions, the UK Government has announced it will begin to follow suit asking many people to return to work.

As of 14 May, the national population can take unlimited exercise outside, and people who cannot work from home should return to work, avoiding public transport.

The prime minister mentioned the next step “at the earliest by 1 June” will involve some primary pupils returning to school and the potential reopening of some shops.

However, a recent poll revealed that even when the lockdown is eased further, many Brits now feel “uncomfortable” going back to their normal lives, let alone return to work. And according to ONS statistics, nearly half of over-16s currently rate their anxiety as “high”, more than double the numbers since 2019.

It’s not yet clear what further actions will take place. Still, organisations need to think carefully about how they will prepare for the possibility of returning to work with some restrictions remaining and how they can support employee mental health post-lockdown.

First steps and legal considerations

Anxiety often stems from the unknown. Anxious employees repeatedly ask themselves ‘what if?’ and focus on problems before they have happened.

Sharing actionable steps on how the business is planning to safeguard their employees’ health and how they can protect themselves when back in their old work environment will help rationalise this issue.

Make sure company health protocols are clear and accessible. This means keeping staff informed on the steps you are taking as a business and giving advice on how to stay hygienic and safe around others.

Ensure payroll staff are told when furlough will end, and when employees should be back on full-pay. The exact timeframes need to be communicated widely to staff and as soon as possible, which will help alleviate anxiety surrounding reduced personal finances.

Staff should be given a reasonable period of notice for when they will be expected to return to ‘normal’ work conditions. Many will need to plan for childcare or adjust working hours if schools have reopened, so the more notice you give, the less you are adding to an existing list of worries.

Communicate emotional support

Some employees may have anxiety about returning to work, commuting on public transport, or have experienced difficult situations during the lockdown.

Have one-to-one meetings, if possible, with every employee – or with set teams, if your company is large – virtually, before they return to work. You should encourage them to share any concerns they have and address any worries about their physical and mental wellbeing.

This assures employees of the emotional wellbeing support you will provide, like employee assistance programmes (EAPS) or how you are scheduling your business’ wellness action plan for the coming months.

Assess your old workspace

Businesses reopening this coming week will have to maintain some elements of social distancing post-lockdown. Before employees return, review your previous work environment, and think about how you can enforce these measures effectively.

Think about whether staff will be able to keep a two-metre distance between each other. If not, you will need to adjust the layout of your workspace and consider other practicalities like how you will hold team meetings and maintain good relationships with existing customers or clients.

If your workplace has been closed for a while, consider a deep clean, paying close attention to things like phones and keyboards, so employees feel safer when they arrive.

Make sure you have the right supplies in place. Health guidelines state the importance of necessary hygiene measures like washing hands regularly, using hand sanitiser and disposable hand towels.

Checking there are plenty of supplies for employees to use is the simplest way of helping relieve some of the worries, while also supporting staff in staying hygienic in a busy office.

Some industries may need to wear PPE, like face masks when they return to work. If this is the case, you should be prepared and ensure you have a supply staff can use, as well as asking them to bring masks if they have them already.

Think about vulnerable staff

Now the Government has begun its phased return to work for UK businesses, it will still not be possible for many vulnerable staff to return. For their wellbeing and resilience, its important to ensure connectivity for members of staff who are still self-isolating. Those forced to continue to work remotely may face psychological hazards linked to increased loneliness and isolation.

Risk assess for these and consider increased connectivity through, for example, the use of virtual water coolers so that teams can stay connected.

You may also have employees who have suffered the bereavement of a friend or family member, who are not in the right emotional state to return to work yet. There is no statutory right to bereavement leave, but responsible businesses should be sympathetic to requests for additional time off if required.

There are plenty of wellness options which can be offered to staff remotely too, including cognitive behaviour therapy, which can be delivered safely and effectively by phone, video or email for flexibility and privacy.

Other types of therapy, which are also safe, effective, and accessible remotely, include counselling (e.g., relationship, bereavement), interpersonal therapy, and access to psychiatric assessments.
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