Taking care of employee well-being as Coronavirus (Covid-19) lockdown restrictions start to ease
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The ‘New Normal’
The Coronavirus pandemic has plunged us into an unprecedented global state of uncertainty which has changed and will continue to change the world and the way we work. As the Government starts to relax Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, employers now need to consider what the ‘new normal’ will look like for their business and their workforce.
Many employers will now be beginning to plan for what is likely to be a staged return to the workplace incorporating changes to the working environment in line with Government and public health guidance.
The ‘new normal’ will be different. Regular routines will be left behind and we will all need to adjust to a new way of working which presents challenges for many of us and can put our mental well-being at risk.
The Impact on Mental Well-Being
Long periods of self-isolation, the continuation of home-working and social distancing from colleagues, friends and family will be difficult for the majority of people, but will undoubtedly have had a further detrimental impact on those employees battling existing conditions such as anxiety and depression.
In turn, as lockdown restrictions gradually ease, many people will be experiencing feelings of heightened concern and anxiety, particularly about being in the workplace or travelling there. As such, they will want to know that their employers are taking into account both their physical and mental well-being when putting together any return to work plans.
Returning to Work: Steps to Support the Well-Being of the Workforce
With this in mind, there are some steps that employers can take now and when planning any return to work to try to mitigate the mental health risks associated with the Coronavirus outbreak and to ensure the safeguarding of their employees’ physical and mental well-being.
- Conduct health and safety risk assessments and communicate and implement a policy on safe working during Covid-19. The policy can set out your plans to reduce the risk of infection such as hygiene and cleanliness measures, the provision of personal protective equipment and social distancing guidelines. This will assist in providing reassurance to employees who have genuine fears and anxieties about returning to work and becoming ill.
- Circulate a return to work questionnaire to your staff in advance of any return to the workplace to assist with better understanding the needs and concerns your staff may have in connection with any return to the workplace and to ensure they feel listened to, consulted and engaged with.
- Consider a range of flexible working patterns. This might include staggering start and finish times, imposing a maximum occupancy limit for working areas, using fixed teams, cohorts or partnering so each person works with only a few others or rotating groups of workers. Employees will take great comfort in knowing their health and well-being is at the heart of your plans to gradually bring them back to work.
- Be open and transparent and re-enforce a consistent message – ensure line managers understand any new ways of working and consistently communicate how these will be implemented. Inconsistent advice is likely to heighten existing worries.
- Promote the internal resources you have available to support people’s health and well-being – if, for example, you have an Employee Assistance Programme, remind people of the advice and support available to them. You may also have Mental Health First Aiders in place who could assist with supporting employee mental well-being or indeed any wider benefits that promote mental well-being.
- Encourage employees to take care of their own mental well-being and promote self-care – signpost employees to online support resources such as Government guidance on Coronavirus and well-being and the Mental Health Foundation.
- Provide ongoing support and communication – with large numbers of employees continuing to work from home, some may feel isolated and anxious with the uncertainty of the situation. Understandably, sometimes our attention will wander and people will get missed in an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ situation. Take the time to listen to any concerns and try to stay connected with them via technology. Video calling, for example, where possible, for virtual catch ups or even just to have virtual coffee or lunch together could really help to alleviate some of their anxiety.
- Implement a re-induction process for those employees returning to the workplace. Encourage line managers to have return to work meetings with every employee, placing a key focus on health, safety and well-being. This is particularly significant for those who have been furloughed, and should address matters such as changes in company procedures or new measures for dealing with customers/clients/visitors. Stress and anxieties levels will worsen when employees feel they are being thrown into unknown territory.
- Be mindful of the fact that this pandemic will have affected different groups of employees and individuals in different ways. Some may have been furloughed on 80% or even 100% of their wages while others may have continued to work or even had heavier workloads. The uneven nature of people’s experiences and the remaining challenges ahead could potentially give rise to negative feelings in the workplace. As such, it will be important to foster an inclusive, sensitive and supportive environment for all employees.
Uncertain Times Ahead
With the changes to the furlough scheme imminent and business survival and contingency planning remaining high on the agenda, employers should remain mindful of their general duty of care towards employees which extends to protecting both their physical and mental well-being and consider which steps they can implement to show their understanding and support of their staff.
Please note that this advice is current as of 22 June 2020 and is subject to ongoing developments.
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