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By Carl Baxter

Managing Partner

Posted on: 6 August 2020

Overcoming the stress of returning to work after Covid-19

None of us have faced a situation before where we are returning to work, either from furlough, after recovering from a novel illness, or from extended working from home along with a plethora of your colleagues. As any woman returning to work after maternity leave can testify, an extended break or change can make it daunting to return to work, before the mass nature of this situation.

It’s likely that employees and employers feel that they have changed; that things aren’t the same as before. Experience changes us. The workplace will have changed, not only as a result of the lockdown implications in business terms, but also in order to make it Covid-secure going forwards.

It is normal to find the transition of returning to work stressful, and that applies after Covid-19 with however it has affected the individual employee and employer.

The issues those returning to work may face

The issues employees face when returning to work after Covid-19 will depend on multiple factors including:

  • Whether they have been ill with Covid-19
  • Whether they’ve been affected by loved ones dying or being seriously ill
  • Their underlying health
  • If they were furloughed
  • Whether they have worked from home

Concerns they may face therefore include:

  • Safety in the workplace as well as knowing and understanding the measures the employer has put in place
  • Finances
  • Adjustments they need due to a change in their health, or special considerations due to underlying health conditions
  • Business, and therefore job, security
  • The possibility of, and impact of, remote working
  • What support is in place as people adjust
  • Morale and cultural changes
  • How to manage caring responsibilities when usual support mechanisms, e.g. childcare, aren’t yet fully operational

The biggest issues

With any return to work scenario, and it can be applied here, we find that the biggest obstacle to smooth transition is communication between the employer and the employee. Where communication is valued and given careful thought, transitions are easier. In this instance, communication should involve sharing with employees what strategies have been put in place to create a Covid-secure workplace, return to work plans for those who have been ill, and clear routes for feedback regarding concerns.

How to overcome the issues of returning to work

Employers are best positioned to put in place actions and strategies to ease the transition for those returning to work after Covid-19, whether they are coming back from sick leave, furlough or home working. Particular care should be taken helping those whose return to work from extended leave such as maternity, paternity and adoption leave, when it coincides with returning to work after Covid-19.

Employers should include employees in discussions about their return to work. This may be done through trade unions or employee representatives. Employers should also take the following steps:

  • Make the workplace safe

Taking steps to make the workplace safe, and communicating these to employees will help to instil confidence in the return to work. The government and the HSE provide guidance about creating a Covid-secure workplace.

  • Communicate

Both employers and employees should discuss their concerns. Employees should be honest with their employer about their worries, so that both sides can understand each other. For example, the employer may not realise that the employee is reliant on public transport for their commute, and feels concerned about this. Or they may not know that the employee finds homeworking isolating.

  • Address concerns

Both employees and employers can take steps to overcome the stress of the situation. Solutions should be considered, as much as possible, taking individual concerns into account. For example, the employer may be able to extend furlough if the employee has particular health vulnerabilities or needs additional time to organise childcare. Or, they may be able to adjust working hours in the short-term, or put in place additional safety measures.

What about if someone doesn’t want to return

Despite all of the above, there may still be situations where a member of staff still doesn’t want to return. Again, listen to the staff member and consider any additional measures that can be put in place. If they are still not happy to return, employers could consider other measures such as using annual leave or unpaid leave. However, employers are not obligated to agree to this and it may be necessary to follow absence or disciplinary policies.

Time

Change is generally a difficult time, and returning to work after Covid-19 is no exception. As long as the steps above are followed, and some time is allowed for adjustment, the stress of returning to work can be managed and a new ‘normal’ achieved as quickly as possible.

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