As summer faded into autumn, England’s office-based commuters were exhorted to return to their offices – to sip their morning coffees, buy their sandwiches, pop into M&S for some socks while keeping the nation’s transport infrastructure ticking over. By October, the growth in Covid-19 infection numbers prompted a change in direction in England: back to work from home if you can. This meant that the ‘Do I? Don’t I?’ question that had troubled so many of the nation’s workers in the early hours returned with a vengeance.
Back in the summer when lockdown eased, society sought to establish what it optimistically thought would be some kind of new normality, with each country within the UK taking a slightly different approach. In England, the return to the workplace weighed on many people’s minds. We saw employers undertaking surveys of employees to better understand their views on coming back to the office. And we also saw a focus on employee' mental health, and how individuals had coped with lock down.
According to some sections of the media, some individuals may be suffering from what it christened ‘coronaphobia’ – a fear of leaving the safety of their homes. This might lead to returning to the workplace provoking higher levels of anxiety and stress among some. However, other employees would eagerly anticipate a return to the office. For example, some may find lockdown isolating, and they may find that hard to deal with, and mental health issues may be caused or exasperated by this. The buzz of the office and the companionship it offers can help manage some conditions. Other employees may be ambivalent in relation to a return, or remaining at home.
Employees may also consider themselves how they will travel to their offices, and the guidelines around that; including the usage of public transport.
In England the latest guidance of “work at home if you can do so effectively”, adds further questions. It is not a return to offices being effectively shut in our view. On the contrary, offices are remaining open (subject to COVID secure risk assessments) and they can be used by anyone who “needs” to use them to carry out their role. An individual who is struggling to cope and who needs to attend the office to avoid (or to assist with) mental health issues, and so they can do their job, would surely come within this definition of "need".
Overall employers should have regard to their duties to employees. The employer's duty is to take reasonable care to avoid foreseeable psychiatric or psychological harm to their staff.
Remote working can make it challenging to gauge an employee’s state of mind. In a face-to-face meeting, the interviewer is better able to assess tone, posture and eye contact. A Zoom call is less conducive to assessing emotional responses from employees, particularly if they feel that any anxieties displayed could be perceived as weakness.
By and large, employers can expect the average person to be able to cope with the average job and even with some additional stress over a short period of time. If that stress is prolonged, if the effect of it is clear, or if the employee’s concerns are not acted upon, the chances of a successful claim for illness increase. An employee survey is a positive step to reduce the potential for claims - if it is acted upon. Maintaining regular contact with staff, listening to concerns – and acting on them – is another.
Where employees do return to work, it’s important to ensure there is a dialogue between employer and employee so that concerns and issues can be discussed and managed to the extent appropriate. This may require flexibility and understanding on both sides.
In relation to mental health issues more widely, if as a result of this pandemic employers focus more on mental health then that would be a positive thing in our view.
Managing employees’ concerns
In relation to any return to work, as and when it comes, employers can plan how they manage that return with employees. Here are some tips for making the transition as painless as possible.
- Consider mental health as part of your health and safety risk assessments Employers can consider mental health as part of their risk assessments and steps that they put in place, as appropriate for them following their own consideration.
- Be clear about who is returning when, and why It is important not to discriminate against staff in relation to any return to work. For example, you should have a clear rationale for who is or isn't asked to return to the office and make sure that decisions around this can be explained.
- Communicate. Communicate. Communicate Communicating with employees remains important. When so much is unknown, regular updates go a long way to providing some certainty and comfort. Consulting and/or canvassing opinions where you can and where appropriate to do so – staff surveys, for instance – helps in relation to employees feeling involved. Employees may also give some useful insights and suggestions to help the company adapt to the evolving norm.
- Hold return-to-work meetings One-on-one return-to-work meetings, where practical, help to re-orientate employees into the workplace, which may be working differently as a result of coronavirus. This will be a good opportunity for employees to share any issues or concerns with their managers. These can take place before returning – over video links – and also after return.
- Cultivate your culture People feel more secure and are more likely to work enthusiastically and productively when they feel that they are a valued member of the team. Somewhat unexpectedly perhaps, some have got to know their colleagues and clients better as a result of the 'lockdown' than they did previously. Video calling into people's homes, being interrupted by children and pets, and having a shared experience together has in many cases brought us closer together.
- Promote access to support Advertise well and encourage staff to use any free counselling services provided, such as through an Employee Assistance Programme. Make sure employees know where to go and who to talk to internally as well if they are experiencing difficulties with mental health. If you have mental health champions, allies or mental health first aiders, make sure they have the latest information on the impact of Covid-19 on mental health. Consider whether you can offer training or up-skilling for those who are providing mental health support to other employees.
This article was previously published in Insurance Day.