The great return to work: helping employees adapt

Published on June 17, 2020 by Kate Taylor
Returning to work after furlough or homeworking

If you’re an employer who is preparing to reopen business or to begin reopening your office/premises, now is the time to be putting together a plan for how you will achieve this.

We recently spoke to health & safety expert Alison Schreiber (The HR Dept Durham), who gave us some excellent advice on preparing your employees for returning to the workplace. You can watch our webinar on handling the return to work or read on for an overview of what employers need to be thinking about in the run up to returning to the workplace.

Returning to work: consider the risks

Before returning to the workplace, it is essential that employers conduct thorough risk assessments. Employers have a duty of care to protect employees and government guidelines emphasise the importance of making workplaces COVID-19 secure through putting proper health and safety measures in place.

If employers have five or more members of staff, their risk assessments should be published. During the pandemic, it is crucial that risk assessments are carried out more regularly than usual and updated accordingly. We recommend communicating to your employees that risk assessments have been carried out and saying where these can be found, along with any updates to them as time progresses.

Find out how the myhrtoolkit document manager can help you streamline staff document sharing.

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What about furloughed employees?

Employees who have been on furlough might feel mixed emotions about returning to work. Hopefully you have been in regular contact with furloughed employees over the furlough period. Before the planned return to work, it is best to communicate with employees - ideally in writing - the planned date for returning to work. We also recommend conducting return to work interviews (these can be carried out remotely) in order to gauge how employees are feeling and to offer reassurances or provisions to those who may be struggling with the return.

If some furloughed employees are in a high-risk group, it might be worth considering whether, if possible, you should leave these employees furloughed whilst bringing back the rest of the workforce. Some employees might struggle with returning to work from furlough if they are responsible for any dependants. Employers are legally required to give emergency leave for those who have dependants in need of care. Employers can decide whether to also keep these employees on furlough, or if they feel that furlough doesn’t apply, to offer them SSP or unpaid leave.

Learn more: Learning more about furlough

Employee mental health and fears over returning to work

Understandably, many employees will feel fearful over returning to work, especially given the negative effects the pandemic has had on employee mental health. Navigating this situation presents a challenge for employers and HR professionals and it is important to feel equipped in dealing with this situation with sensitivity.

Listen to your employees

We recommend that you listen to your employees’ concerns over returning to work. Communicate with them what you have done in order to guarantee their health and safety (e.g. your risk assessment reports, any changes to the workplace infrastructure). This should help to alleviate some employee’s fears over returning to the workplace.

Remember to re-engage furloughed employees

Employees who have been furloughed might feel disengaged from work, so it is important to communicate what is happening with the business as well as any expected changes in the upcoming months in order to keep employees feeling engaged.

Give employees control

Employees are likely to feel more fearful and resistant to returning to work if they feel like they don’t have any control over the situation. Employers can mitigate these concerns by giving employees time to adjust to returning to work and by offering them more control over their work by, for instance, allowing for flexible working through staggered start and leave times.

Employees with mental health conditions

Some employees might also have pre-existing mental health conditions that have been exacerbated by the lockdown conditions. If an employee’s mental health condition constitutes a disability, employers have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments in order to accommodate this. These should be discussed with the employee before returning to work. Beyond this, the majority of employers will be unqualified to deal with an employee’s mental health and should encourage the employee to seek professional help and support.

Something that employers can do to support the mental health of all of their employees is to provide access to a confidential advice and support telephone service such as the service provided by the Employee Assistance Professionals Association. This might be a helpful resource for those employees who are struggling but who are reluctant to share their concerns with somebody in the workplace.

Most important during this time is the need to be kind to employees. Employees might have suffered bereavement, financial troubles, and other deprivations due to the pandemic, and employers welcoming staff back to work should bear this in mind. Be sure to give plenty of praise and recognition to staff for showing up to work, and encourage teamwork and collegiality as a way of supporting everyone through their individual difficulties.

Read more from the myhrtoolkit blog

Employers' legal responsibilities in managing a return to the office

What are the main health and safety responsibilities of employers?

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Written by Kate Taylor

Kate is a Content Marketing Executive for myhrtoolkit. She is interested in SaaS platforms, automation tools for making HR easier, and strategies for keeping employees engaged.

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