How to manage wellbeing expectations when returning to work
In our latest workplace wellbeing report, 64% of employers said that ensuring employees feel safe when they’re able to return to work is one of their biggest wellbeing challenges.
At a time when there is so much grey area for both office and non-office-based businesses, ensuring that safe return to the workplace will be crucial to ease any back to work anxiety employees may be feeling.
What is the UK government’s stance on returning to work?
The government, at the time of posting this article, still says that people should work from home if they can. This seems sensible considering how many people, like myself, have shown that their job is completely doable without the need to be in an office. However, some offices are opening for their employees but this must be done with social distancing in mind.
Where people are more concerned are those whose work can’t be done from home – manufacturing, restaurants, bars, hairdressers, and a multitude of other direct customer-facing businesses. If you’re still unsure whether your business can open or not, the full run-down from the government can be found here.
What are the current wellbeing and return to work challenges?
There are potential hazards for returning to work, which we’ve already seen in the closure of three food factories due to an outbreak of coronavirus among staff, so getting it right is as much for the health of your employees as it is to keep your business operational.
Safety fears when returning to work
We found that a quarter of employees fear for their safety when returning to work. Interestingly, from that quarter, more employees who are office-based (28%) are worried about safety when returning to work than those who are non-office-based (20%).
The opposite is the case for business leaders. 19% of employers who are non-office-based say their workspace wellbeing is ‘poor’ compared to just 11% who are office-based. With workspace wellbeing referring to the ability to work well and feel safe in the workplace, it’s clear there are more safety concerns for those who aren’t shielded from the public by an office.
Having the right safety equipment
Following on from the concerns of workspace wellbeing, having the right safety equipment for your employees is vital. This could be anything from visors and face coverings if work in a pub/restaurant to partitions in the office to keep people from getting too close.
Fortunately, the government has put together an online risk assessment which you can carry out to ensure you meet their reopening criteria. You can find the risk assessment here.
Employees not seeing the need to return
You might not find employees in a rush to return to the workplace – especially if you’re office-based. From our research, we found that only 9% of people now want to work from the office full-time. They would much prefer to work in the office for just two (23%) to three (18%) days a week, with 9% saying they now want to permanently work from home.
Those in senior management positions and above share nearly the same sentiment. They would prefer to work in the office two (25%) to three (24%) days a week, with 18% saying they now want to permanently work from home.
How to maintain employee wellbeing during the return to work?
Ensure good health and safety
As mentioned above, we really recommend that businesses carry out the government’s online risk assessment. This way you’ll get a definitive answer on what you need to make your workplace safe.
When you’ve completed your assessment and made the necessary arrangements, you should communicate them with your employees as widely as possible. If 25% of UK employees are worried about their safety when returning to work, showing them the lengths you’ve gone to protect them will greatly alleviate their anxieties. And we’ll cover that next.
Remove any fears
When employees can’t see the workplace and the measures you’ve taken to make it safe for their return, there are few words which will reduce their fears. Think about any horror movie, the monsters are much more terrifying when you can’t see them.
Alongside communicating the changes you’ve made to keep your people safe, take photos and film videos of new layouts or safety procedures. Share these through all of your communication channels so everyone can see them. The more exposure you give to the hard work you’ve put in, the more your employees will appreciate it and feel safe about returning.
As our report data above showed, there are greater return to work fears for business leaders who are non-office-based. Before making any changes, it might be worth consulting with them on how they believe the transition should be managed. For example, if you have a chain of restaurants, the people working in them will know theirs inside out. They will probably have good ideas on how to operate them safely, and the more you allow them to take the lead, the safer they’ll feel.
Make the return fair for all
You can’t expect a positive return to work attitude from employees if their managers and senior leaders don’t return with them. Looking at our report data more closely, more managers/senior leaders (20%) at non-office-based companies want to work from home five days a week than their peers at office-based companies (17%).
Those managers at non-office-based businesses may have more administrative tasks to do which can be done at home, but the message it sends to employees can be a touch demoralising. It’s never good for the employee experience if there is a sense of Us vs. Them in the hierarchy of the workforce. Where possible, you should encourage managers to follow the same return to work guidelines as the rest of the business.
There may be some middle ground to be found, with managers committing to being in the workplace for a minimum number of days. So long as managers are honest with their employees about the amount of time they plan to be in the workplace, it will build a lot more trust than just appearing at random – or not even appearing at all!
What are the positives of returning to work?
Returning to work isn’t all negative though. In fact, getting back in the workplace may actually help solve two of the biggest wellbeing challenges for employees which we found in our report:
- Feeling less connected to their company and colleagues
- Increased loneliness/feelings of isolation
While things are slowly returning to the new normal – said with crossed fingers – we were away from friends, family and colleagues for more than three months. Even if you’re not the best of friends with your colleagues, that regular human contact is fundamental to our mental health.
If you have the capacity, now might be a good time to open your workplace and rotate which teams can come in on certain days. Rather than making it compulsory, for the sake of people’s mental wellbeing, they may appreciate being able to come in and see their colleagues face to face.
This will need to be managed carefully as social distancing will still need to be observed. But seeing a colleague from 2m away will still be more human than over a video call – greatly improving feelings of isolation and connection. We cover ways to do this in our return to work checklist which you can download from here.
What if employees refuse to return to work?
Employees can refuse to return to work if they believe that there’s a real danger in them being there or because they have to take public transport. This is in the extreme and if you carry out all of the necessary health and safety requirements, your workplace should be safe enough for employees to return.
This is not a bad thing. You should be making your workplace as safe as possible for your workforce. Not only is it the right thing to do as an employer, but it’s also now an important part of the employee experience. The safer you make your workplace, the happier your employees will be.
Get the return to work checklist
We’ve put together a to-the-point checklist which can help you make a smooth transition back to the workplace. As well as the latest government advice, the checklist also includes:
- Why you shouldn’t all rush back at once
- How to maintain socially distanced socialising
- Why regular check-ins are important
- Why you need to get your companies pulse
- What the latest UK government advice is