The future of work is changing, and Covid-19 has brought extraordinary challenges to businesses across the globe. Staff have been furloughed, allowed to work from home or continued to work as ‘normal’, however this situation is far from normal. The way people work going forward will change and what seemed impossible just a few months ago is now becoming the new norm. Covid-19 has created a new way of working for individuals and organisations and in this paper, we examine what that might look like when returning to work.
Without any clear guidelines we can only use our knowledge to predict what challenges organisations may face when returning to work. This guide will help identify potential risks, put in place solutions to reduce the risks and improve wellbeing and performance.
When do we reopen?
Once the government has given clear instructions that you can restart work, then make sure that everything is in place as per the following guidance, decide who and when are going to come back to work, give clear dates and stick to them, unless there is further conflicting advice from the government. Remember that all staff do not necessarily need to come back, if they have been just as effective working from home, then why not consider this as a permanent situation.
The office environment
The office environment will operate in a way we have never witnessed before. Covid-19 has brought along many new challenges for organisations and has made them question how they value the health and wellbeing of their employees. In the past many organisations have viewed employee health and wellbeing as a nice to have, rather than a business priority. Witnessing the devastating effect, the crisis has had on employee’s mental and physical wellbeing has forced organisations to readdress the importance of having a healthy workforce. Employees may be anxious about returning to work for the fear of catching Covid-19. Organisations have a legal obligation to identify and manage risk in the workplace and this includes the risk of cross-contamination and psychosocial risk. Performing a risk assessment allows organisations to implement a hierarchy of control measures to eliminate the risk as far as is reasonably possible or to minimise exposure to risk if total elimination is not viable. The adverse situation organisations have found themselves in will hopefully create opportunity for a healthier working future.
Physical Risk Social Distancing
Physical interaction should be kept to a minimum and staff should adhere to the 2m social distance rule. To adapt a safe working environment, it may be necessary to implement a rota or shift work that enables the business to operate but without putting the health of the workforce in jeopardy. It is important to remember that social distancing is not just about the time spent at the desk, it is also about time spent in public spaces such as washrooms, kitchens, lifts, walkways, and meeting rooms. It is recommended that only 1 person enters the washrooms at any one time and signage should be used to identify if it is vacant or occupied. Meetings should be kept to a minimum and where possible held virtually rather than face to face. Breaks should be staggered to allow minimum contact in rest and canteen areas. If it is not possible to keep a social distance of 2m to perform necessary work, then a maximum time of 15 minutes should be spent in the location. Clear guidelines should be set within organisations to help alleviate the fear staff may have about returning to the work environment.
It is recommended that a deep clean takes place before employees return to work. Keeping a clear and clutter-free workspace will help make the cleaning process easier for staff. Other considerations are how to minimise the possibility of cross-infection when entering the building and opening doors and organisations should consider investing in automatic hand sanitisers in well-used spaces. Organisations may also wish to offer a ‘temperature check’ before staff enter the workplace, but this alone does not highlight the presence of the disease. It is not just about contamination from the things we first consider. How shared resources are used will have to be readdressed, i.e. will the shared teabag pot still be suitable or will staff need to take their own supplies to use whilst at work? Encourage good hygiene such as hand washing and etiquette around sneezing and coughing and make resources available for staff, such as tissues and hand sanitiser on the desks (catch it, bin it, kill it). Put strict rules in place of ‘stay at home when demonstrating symptoms of Covid-19’ and have a plan in place should a member of staff come down with Covid-19 after attending the workplace. Consideration must be given to personal protective equipment (PPE) if personal risk cannot be managed with the above actions. This may be something as simple as a pair of gloves to protect employees when using a shared resource, to full PPE. This decision will need to form part of your overall risk assessment. Communication is key During this unprecedented time we are facing; many workplace procedures will change, and it is vitally important that any changes are communicated to staff clearly and timely. Ensure strategic information is shared and that regular contact is kept with staff whether they work from home or are on furlough. Arrange a coffee and catch up at regular times as this will help individuals feel they are still part of the organisation and help reduce the feeling of isolation. Changes may need to be made to contracts or training schedules and changes communicated clearly demonstrating why these changes are taking place. Implementing ‘Post Covid-19’ guidelines for staff will help them to understand what is required of them and the business during these uncertain times. Psychosocial risk Before the Pandemic 72.8% of businesses stated that pressurised work was the biggest organisational threat and 59% stated that mental health was a key driver but going forward this figure is likely to be much higher. Psychosocial risk and work-related stress are among the most challenging issues in occupational health and safety and with current circumstances compromising the mental health and wellbeing of so many, psychosocial risks must be managed effectively. Psychosocial risk arises from poor work design, organisation, and management, as well as a poor social context of work, and they may result in negative psychological, physical and social outcomes such as work-related stress, burnout or depression. The changes in the working environment over the past few months have been colossal and how well or not so well these have been managed will start to show in the coming months. The exceptional times of Covid-19 have forced employers to take a more flexible approach to the way employees work, offering flexibility on workload, autonomy over the way they work, and an increased level of trust. Managers are cited as having a more empathetic style of management and better relationships being formed through a shared understanding of what each person is going through. Communication has been increased and people are taking the time to talk to each other, and ‘check-in’ rather than just send emails. This time has shown that the way in which organisations control psychosocial risk is vitally important in addressing levels of workplace stress. Offering a level of autonomy over job roles, having a supportive culture, building positive relationships, communicating change and offering a level of flexibility is essential going forward if organisations want to manage the risk to mental health and wellbeing. Over the past few weeks many positive lessons have been learnt about psychosocial risks in the workplace and hopefully this will change the way in which employee mental wellbeing is viewed going forward.
People needs versus organisational needs
The control of where to work and when has shifted from an employer-led decision to an employee-led decision with employers have little influence over things. As employees juggle to manage carer responsibilities, home-schooling and work, a new level of flexibility has been unearthed along with increased autonomy over job roles. Whilst many employees have relished this new way of working others long to be back in their normal workplace with their colleagues and working as they are used to. Only 3 months back the thought that most of the workforce would be working from home would have sent many organisations into a spin, it seemed impossible until it was done. This new way of working is seen as an opportunity for many and has allowed them to spend less time commuting and more time communicating with their families. The forced time away from the office has led many people to readdress their priorities and it is predicted that demands for agile working will increase and this new wave of flexibility will become the norm, whilst this may not be the preferred way to operate for organisations this largest natural experiment has proven that it can be done!
How to ensure staff are fit for work
Managing the return to work process is not as simple as ‘business as usual’. Organisations will need to consider what the return to work process looks like and how will they establish if people are healthy and well. Firstly, organisations need to consider who will return to work and when, is it a case of survival of the fittest or will you adopt a different mechanism for selection? Many employees will be classed as high risk and may not be able to return to work in the first instance. Consideration also needs to be given to staff who were previously off sick and staff who have become sick during lock-down. It is also worth considering how the limited access to medical care has impacted on individual health. You may find staff have accumulated longer term health problems by not getting the immediate care they required, and they may need additional support during this time. Hopefully, regular communication via videocall has been an ongoing process and managers have a clear understanding of how their staff are keeping. However, it is still recommended that some form of health diagnostic is performed prior to staff returning to work. It may be in the form of a health questionnaire or preferably a face to face video return to work call. Asking staff how they are feeling at this stage is vitally important to managing the health and wellbeing return to work process. Not everyone may be able to return to work in the initial phase. Organisations may need to adopt shift work, part time working or phased return to work in order to maintain safe social distancing. Organisations will also need to plan for what action needs to be taken if a staff member becomes ill with Covid-19 whilst at work and plan for what adaptations may need to be made to accommodate post Covid-19 employees (Covid-19 may leave awith reduced lung capacity). What is paramount is that mental and physical health considerations are at the forefront of the return. If organisations do not establish a robust return to work process, they will most likely experience longer-term issues further down the line.
How to support employee mental health both now and in the future
The personal impact of Covid-19 Employees is all going to be affected by the crisis in different ways. For some, it has been a time of realisation, growth, and appreciation whilst for others it has been a time of fear, trauma and grief. Cases of domestic abuse, mental illness, and suicide have increased, and this will impact on individuals when they return to work. The financial situation has put many individuals under increased pressures and compromised the health of themselves and their families. Having a clear understanding of employee needs during this time is paramount to managing mental health and wellbeing. Individuals have all been through their journey and it is up to employers to understand what journey their staff have been on and how this will impact them now and in the future. The pandemic has compromised the mental health of so many. It is not just about employees who have previously experienced poor mental health there are many new cases with people suffering from increased anxiety. Organisations need to ensure that staff are mentally well to return to work, identifying individual’s concerns and helping to alleviate the fear will help make the process more manageable. Ensuring support systems are in place such as occupational health, employee assistance programmes, health care plans and health training will help reduce the risk of poor mental health.
Out of adversity comes opportunity
No health and wellbeing strategy could have prepared for the enormity of the situation we now find ourselves in. However, there is evidence to suggest that organisations who have a robust workplace health and wellbeing strategy in place outperform organisations with no strategy. Aligning the health needs of your workplace to the needs of your business is key to improving both employee and business outcomes.
- Decide when to reopen.
- Carry out a risk assessment for the new way the premises will operate.
- Manage the potential spread of the virus.
- Disinfect and modify the premises, as necessary.
- Screen employees prior to re start and then monitor them.
- Provide clear details of new systems, resources and regimes.
- Ensure everything is in place prior to reopening, consult professionals, as necessary.