Masking the anxiety?



13 July 2021

The subject of face masks has been a controversial one throughout the pandemic in the UK, and it’s fair to say that very few people actively look forward to wearing such items.

Yet - after nearly a year of requirements to do so - most of us have become accustomed and indeed accepting of the need to “mask-up” when in close proximity to others. 

So the sudden change to make mask-wearing “a matter of personal choice” from the 19th July has already proven to be the subject of much comment and challenge by scientists, journalists, unions, businesses, and increasingly the general public too.  For whilst the revised edict may appear to be a pragmatic political position, it does come with some genuine challenges to be considered. 

Who benefits?

The real issue here is that mask wearing is largely a measure that prevents the mask-wearer from potentially spreading the virus to others, rather than the other way around.  It follows that it’s the personal choices of others that dictate the chance of the virus being spread to any one individual in a crowded or confined space. 

This is potentially another problem for employers as the national return to the physical workplace begins.  For the pandemic is very far from over in the UK, with both the Prime Minister and the new Health Secretary predicting around 50,000 daily infections by the 19th July, and projected estimates of up to 100,000 daily infections by August.  These are scary numbers, and this despite the vaccination programme now reaching north of 80% of the UK adult population, and COVID-19 antibodies now estimated to be present in 9 in 10 adults also.

It follows that very many employees – even those now double-jabbed – may well feel uncomfortable in the situation where mask wearing is no longer mandatory.  And whilst there is now clear evidence that the link between COVID-19 infections and mortality has been weakened by the vaccination programme, there remains some other significant health concerns for employers to consider.

The risks?

Firstly – and importantly – there is not yet enough data to establish if the vaccination programme is reducing the number of longer-term Covid-19 cases.  Professor Danny Altman of Imperial College recently said;

"If we're heading into a phase of 100,000 cases per day, and, we're saying that 10-20% of all infections can result in Long Covid, I can see no certainty that we're not brewing those Long Covid cases despite having a vaccinated population"

Long Covid is a worry for employers and employees alike (see this post).  But there is also the equally valid concern that such a high number of infections may represent ideal conditions for the virus to mutate again.  And in the worst-case scenario that could be into a more vaccine-resistant form, with all the associated mortality, health, and economic issues that this would potentially entail.

Employee anxiety

Such worries have the potential to undermine any return to the physical workplace, and it is striking that research from YouGov published last week (following the Prime Minister announcements on the 5th July) show that more than half (55%) of the population now feel nervous about the lifting of restrictions, with 1 in 5 of those questioned feeling “very nervous”. 

And these new findings only build on the potential employee anxieties that we discussed in this recent post.  So it would be prudent for employers to take note of these concerns and act accordingly. 

What can employers do?

Some organisations might unilaterally opt to maintain mask wearing in some scenarios, and indeed many Unions have already called for such action to better protect their members.  And only yesterday the Prime Minister suggested that the government would;

"expect and recommend that people wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces where you come into contact with those you don’t normally meet, such as on public transport."

Other employers might simply opt to continue with homeworking until the infection numbers are decreasing and/or the evidence around COVID-19 risks post-vaccinations are better understood. 

And of course employers should again utilise their Employee Benefits offering to provide support too.  Tools such as Employee Assistance Plans, Remote GP Appointments and private healthcare provision will help ensure that people can seek professional advice and reassurance on these issues as and when needed.

The reality is that the face-covering debate is probably masking a wide variety of anxieties within many workforces, and it is in the interests of both employer and employee that these are addressed and resolved where possible.  So the onus is for employers to continue to show strong – but compassionate – leadership as the national return to the physical workplace takes shape. 

For more information on any of the above topics, please speak to your usual Howden Consultant in the first instance, or visit our website for other contact options. For the latest details on COVID-19 & Employee Benefits provision please visit our coronavirus hub.

(Published 13/07/21)

Steve Herbert

Steve Herbert

Steve is Head of Benefits Strategy, Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing, and is an award-winning thought leader on Pensions, Employee Benefits, and Human Resources issues. He is occasionally accused of making Employee Benefits interesting.

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