The current health crisis is a concern for all. Coupled with the crippling effect on the economy, it is fair to say that almost all employees will be worried about the situation, and their future, in one way or another.

Whether your employees are working from home, on Furlough Leave or are preparing to return to the office, taking into account their health and wellbeing, and anticipating their concerns, is crucial in order to ensure a smooth transition in the physical return to the workplace. Failure to do so may result in employee unrest, reluctance to return to work, and sickness absence. All of that of course is best avoided if possible, particularly at a time when businesses are looking to take steps to rebuild and restart.

We have set out below some considerations and practical steps you can take to support your employees whilst also navigating through tricky business conditions, with the aim of striking that ever elusive “right balance”.

Working from home

In a recent survey, over half of employees working from home said they felt isolated, with nearly two out of five employees feeling stressed or anxious, or suffering other mental health issues.

Whilst employers are concerned for the future of their businesses (perhaps also questioning the efficiency of recently established home working practices), employees are equally likely to be concerned for the safety of their jobs, and in some cases whether they are perceived to be working hard enough.

The best practical advice to tackle that issue is this: keep in touch with your employees who are working from home. Hold regular remote meetings amongst teams, provide a weekly update to staff, and ensure managers are checking in with their teams regularly. This allows employers to keep track of workloads, productivity generally, but also, if handled appropriately, can update staff and reassure them on what you are doing as a business to weather the storm.

It is also important to note that your obligations as an employer still apply when your employees are working from home, so it is important that you make sure, as far as possible, that employees are taking regular breaks and taking care of themselves. A “checking in” phone call from you will go a long way and should also help to flag up any wider issues which might store up problems for your business later down the line.

For those with childcare responsibilities, it is important that you understand the pressures they face so you can head off any problems, on an ongoing basis. You may want to consider discussing flexible working arrangements such as staggering start times or allowing them to work their hours across additional days, and if so, how that will be managed and monitored. If both parties have a “plan” in terms of workloads and timings, it is likely to reduce the stress the employee faces and also reassure the employer that work is being handled appropriately. This open dialogue with staff on their childcare position and pressures assists with operational planning as and when staff are called back into the physical office – whilst you may assume that all of your staff will return when your premises re-open, if your parents do not have childcare options (particularly with a phased re-opening of schools), that simply cannot happen. It is best to know that ahead of time so that you can consider arrangements which both work for your business and support the employee; that may require some creative thinking and, if handled correctly, will also ensure that your employee feels supported and valued.

If you have any private health insurance, or employee assistance programmes, now is the time to be signposting employees to the support they can receive through these avenues. Even simply providing employees with information as to where they can find information or obtain further support (such as from Mind) is helpful.

Furlough Leave

Employees on Furlough Leave may be facing a number of concerns; some may feel isolated, some may worry that they won’t have a job to return to, and some may feel guilty, particularly if some of their colleagues are still at work.

As above for those working from home, ensure good lines of communication with regular updates, and referral for additional support through health insurance or employee assistance programmes. It is also a good idea to ask Furloughed employees to undertake training to develop their own skills during this time, making sure that such training does not amount to “work” (so it should not generate income for the business, and must be directly relevant to an employee’s employment). In addition to keeping the individual engaged (and reminding them they are still employed) that also benefits your business with refreshed skills that employee brings with them on their return to work.

Perhaps most crucially, as we start to see the tide change in terms of the lockdown restrictions, many employers are now at the point where they are considering how and when best to call staff back from Furlough Leave, or indeed whether they no longer require those staff and need to commence a redundancy process. It is crucial to employees’ mental health that you update your employees as early as you operationally can as to those factors. Remind employees (as appropriate) that they can and will be called back from Furlough Leave in the near future, to allow them to mentally prepare for what will represent a huge change. That should also “flush out” any employees who may not wish to be “un-Furloughed” to allow you to assuage any concerns those employees may have on a return and / or plan operationally. Equally, if staff may not be coming back, alluding to that at an early opportunity may be appropriate to allow those employees to mentally prepare for that eventuality and indeed source new work.

Returning to Work

Many people are going to be worried about what a return to work might mean; whether a return after a period of working from home or from Furlough Leave. It is important that as an employer you address these concerns and our advice is to have an open an honest dialogue to talk things through with a view to reaching a solution that everyone is happy with.

There are strict health and safety obligations on employers to ensure the safety of their employees at work in terms of protecting their physical health, and controlling the spread of the coronavirus – making sure businesses are “Covid Secure”. That is, of course, the first step any business should be taking before looking to call staff back. Doing that not only ensures that physical health is protected, but should also offer some reassurance to those who are experiencing anxiety in respect of returning to the workplace.

If employees object to returning to work, then ask them why. Try to understand what their reservations are, and see what can be done to resolve these. Communication is key here – your employees are far more likely to be productive and hard-working if their mental health and wellbeing has been considered (and that they feel as though it has been considered), as well as their physical health. Equally, having a clear view on why an employee objects to returning to work will help you in considering whether there are any steps you can agree on to make the employee feel more comfortable, and indeed whether or not such objection is reasonable. That will, of course, factor into any subsequent decision making for you.

There is no doubt that both employees and employers will face tough times in the coming weeks as both try to balance the needs, feelings, and fears of the other. The point is, as the title to this article alludes, for the mental health of your staff, good industrial relations, and indeed for operational planning, communication is key. It really is that simple – it’s good to talk.

Note: The content of this article is for general information only and does not constitute legal advice. Specific legal advice should be taken in any particular circumstance. If you would like more information on the content of this article, please call the Employmentor Team on 01603 281139.

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