We have never had to manage return to work on this scale. Many people feel confused, worried and apprehensive about going back to the workplace.
What we do next, and the way we do it, will have a significant impact on employees and our organisations for many months, possibly years, to come.
As we transition out of lock down, learnings from research and best practice will help us navigate the challenging journey ahead:
- We have all had different experiences during lock down but the majority of employees will be returning with depleted mental health due to the challenges faced. Many people are struggling to cope with the demands from work and home. This rapid change has been combined for some with concern about health, finances, being isolated from others and bereavement. We will need to enter this next phase with care and compassion if we are to protect and build the mental health of our workforce.
- As we prepare for return to work it is important that we make provisions for safe working practices, involve our employees in decisions and communicate our plans clearly and early. Organisations and sectors will differ in their requirements, but it is important these plans are shared to help address any concerns employees, or their families, have about their return.
- The key principles of return to work often get lost somewhere in the translation from policy to practice. Many employees report limited contact with their organisation while they are away from the workplace. Too often line managers do not meet employees on their first day and employees return to their full workload on day one. Research shows us that employees are more likely to stay back at work, and be productive on their return, when we get the basics right. These include :
- Maintaining communication while the employee is away from the workplace to keep up to date with what is going on.
- Help the employee prepare to return to work. Ask them to think about their travel, any care arrangements that need to change. Discuss changes to the way they will work on their return or send pictures of how the physical workspace has changed.
- Agree workplace adjustments together to improve buy-in and adherence. This could be individually, on a team basis, through a staff consultation exercise or convening a staff advisory group.
- Share a walk-through of the first day. This will help to quell anxieties and improve compliance to the new workplace norms.
- Equip line managers with information and skills needed to support their team. Line managers do not need to know every policy but they need to know who to ask for help and good people management skills.
- Ensure line managers to hold return to work conversations to check-in and set expectations of new ways of working.
- Take the first few days slowly – it is going to be exhausting! Many employees have been confined to their homes, some in challenging circumstances. The sensory stimulation of the outside world, negotiating travel, the cognitive or physical demands of work after weeks of being away will be tiring. To avoid mistakes, accidents or future absences, give employees the permission to ease themselves back into taking on their full workload.
- Approach return to work as journey. Accept that sometimes changes made with the best intentions do not work and will need to be revisited. A flexible ‘test and learn’ approach will help employees and the organisation adapt.
- Monitor, review and learn to ensure that the changing needs of employees and the business are met.
- Many of our mental health activities help individuals develop skills and strategies to manage their own mental health. This is good, but it is only one part of the jigsaw. We must take a whole systems approach to mental health if want employees to return to work and stay mental healthy and productive. A whole systems approach encourages us to think about the different roles individuals, groups and teams, line managers and organisations play, and how they influence each other.
Working in collaboration with Professor Karina Nielsen at the University of Sheffield, we took a systems approach and identified a range of resources that employees need to return to and stay at work. We all have our own set of resources inside and outside work that can help us stay happy and healthy. We call this our Igloo.
Our igloo for returning to work is made up of different resources including:
Individual resource – including self-care such as exercise, as well as keeping clear boundaries between work and leisure and creating structure in the working day.
Group resources – including receiving non-judgemental support from friends and colleagues, getting feedback from team members to show our work is appreciated and getting help on challenging tasks.
Leader resources – including clear and open communication of talks and priorities, emotional and practical support, giving control over the way work is done, managing work demands within the team, supporting work adjustments where needed.
Organisational resources – including clear flexible working practices and leave policies, addressing stigma, access to work-focused counselling.
The Igloo approach provides us each with a useful reminder of our contribution in the challenging journey ahead.
Finally, as a professional working to support others in your organisation, it is important to recognise that you might make decisions that need to be changed and people might not behave in ways you had planned.
Things do not always go smoothly when one person returns to work, so with so many employees returning in the coming weeks and months we must be prepared for there to be challenges along the way.
Remember to be kind to yourself as we tread this new path together.
Key resources to help inform your return to work strategy:
Thriving at work: Igloo framework for sustainable return to work following mental health sickness absence www.Affinityhealthatwork.co.uk/our-research
Mental Health at Work (Mind and The Royal Foundation) – mentalhealthatwork.org.uk/coronavirus-return-to-work
Chartered Institute of Personnel Development – https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/emp-law/employees/workplace-guide-returning-after-coronavirus
Society of Occupational Medicine – https://www.som.org.uk/return-to-work/
About the author
Dr Jo Yarker is a Director of Affinity Health at Work and holds an academic post at Birkbeck, University of London, working in a job-share with Rachel Lewis. As a psychologist, specialising in work and health she is passionate about understanding what we can do to foster fulfilling, healthy and productive work, particularly under times of challenge. Her award winning research has been funded by the Health and Safety Executive, Department of Work and Pensions and Chartered Institute of Personnel Development and organisations. Author of more than 150 articles, book chapters, guides and toolkits, Jo presents frequently at professional and industry conferences.