With UK businesses now starting to plan for safe reopening, the government has released guidelines on social distancing and other practical steps to minimise infection risk. However, businesses also need to plan for employee health and wellbeing considerations beyond the physical. Colleagues will return to workplaces that look and feel very different, against a backdrop of the fears and pressures caused by an ongoing pandemic.


To help employers identify and address the implications of this for their teams, we’ve taken a look at potential concerns employees may face when they return to work, and how businesses can address these.


Emerging from lockdown


According to mental health charity Mind, as employees start leaving their homes to go to work during the coronavirus outbreak, it may feel difficult and stressful for them. As much as they may have missed the social aspects of the workplace while working from home, this has also given them the comfort of being in a safety ‘bubble’. Returning to work will create new levels of concern as people leave their homes, increasing the feeling of risk.


Some will have to take public transport or navigate walking or cycling to work on roads that are getting busier. And others could be returning with a feeling of social isolation due to the lockdown, especially if they live alone.


The socially distanced workplace


The workplace employees are returning to will look and feel very different to the one they left pre-lockdown. Fears of catching the virus will be compounded as they return to offices ruled by infection control and social distancing.


Distanced desks, protective screens and rules around kitchen and cafeteria use will create a new and unfamiliar environment. Gone for the foreseeable future is the ability to gather in the kitchen for a chat while making a cup of tea, and moving around the workplace will suddenly require thought and concentration to avoid breaching rules.


New fears


Alongside the fear of infection, coronavirus has created other pressures for employees. Many will have experienced new challenges such as home schooling or caring for a vulnerable relative, as well as financial worries. Others might have experienced illness or bereavement.


It’s important to bear in mind that many will return to work with these concerns. They may have had to find new ways to care for relatives or be worried about their children returning to school or childcare.


So how can businesses support their employees and ensure they take care of their health and wellbeing?


1. Help employees transition back into work


The first step for businesses in helping their employees is to acknowledge that these new pressures exist. Simply knowing their employer understands the world has changed and that they are adapting to accommodate this will help. Businesses could create a re-orientation process for returning employees, covering all the changes that have been put in place, how issues are being addressed and any specific asks of employees.


2. Communicate, communicate, communicate


With so much uncertainty, businesses cannot communicate enough. Speak to your employees on a regular basis, ensuring they know all that is being done to keep them safe. Requirements will be adapted as the pandemic changes, so ensure you keep your team updated and reassure them that their wellbeing is your primary concern. And make sure this communication is a dialogue; invite feedback, concerns and ideas, and demonstrate you’re listening to your teams by reporting back on what you hear.


3. Introduce new flexibility


Allow for a period of readjustment as your employees adjust to the outside world after many weeks in lockdown and look for ways you can be flexible to alleviate pressures on them. Encourage managers to have return meetings with every employee, focussing on health, safety and wellbeing. These should include an open and honest discussion to understand any specific pressures employees are facing and discuss any adjustments or support needed to ease their return to the workplace.


It could be that some staff require a phased return to their full role, or want to discuss a new working arrangement, especially if their domestic situation has changed because of the pandemic. As a business, consider what new allowances can be made, either short-term or on a permanent basis. Could you allow some of the team to work from home for parts of the week, or vary working hours so that they can travel outside of rush hour? Measures such as this can have a significant positive impact on mental health and anxiety and could also help with your business’s social distancing requirements.


4. Help employees find new ways of interacting


Encourage your team to find new ways of working together and socialising in the ‘new normal’ environment. For example, going for a walk outside or having a packed lunch together while ensuring they stick to the social distancing rules. Helping to smooth the transition will help these new habits feel less alien and enable employees to find new ways to collaborate and interact.


5. Provide practical support


Remind your employees help is available to them if they are struggling with anxiety or any element of the return to work. Create channels for them to have confidential conversations and if your business has an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), make sure employees are aware of the services available to them.


EAPs can provide confidential support on mental health, personal and work-related issues, as well as financial guidance. Having 24/7, 365 days a year access to a friendly, trained advisor who is just a phone call away can be a massive weight off the shoulders of someone struggling.


Sovereign Health Care’s Asset cash plan not only helps employees manage their everyday health costs by providing them with money back towards expenses such as dental, optical and physiotherapy, but it also includes access to a comprehensive EAP, so employees can speak to an expert about everything from financial information and gambling issues to family matters or housing concerns whenever they need to.


You may also want to provide your team with the details of specialist organisations that are able to help with specific concerns. For example, Carers UK can help employees with caring responsibilities and Step Change can provide advice around the financial impact of the pandemic.


Despite the multiple challenges ahead, employers can successfully navigate the transition by taking the opportunity to create a new dynamic with their teams, ensuring their organisation culture is inclusive and that every employee feels they are returning to a supportive and caring environment.

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