The anxiety of workplace return
15 June 2021
The last stage of lifting COVID-19 restrictions may have been delayed a little recently, but already employees across the United Kingdom are starting a gradual return to the physical workplace.
Of course that return may well feel a little strange at first.
Not only have some employees been absent from the workplace for the longest period in their adult life, but the workplace itself may have changed during this period to minimise the risk of COVID-19 infections.
And then there are the understandable doubts and concerns about how we interact with our colleagues after so much time apart, especially if the usual norms of a handshake or a hug are no longer thought acceptable. The bottom line is that many might find that their once familiar and safe workspace now feels rather alien and even a little dangerous.
Finally there are some entirely valid and significant concerns about the commute to work. Whilst it’s quite possible to reduce the risk of virus transmission in the actual place of work with physical changes and the common consent of all workers, it is far more challenging to reduce the risks of travelling on a crowded train, tram, or bus amongst a group of complete strangers.
Yet identifying how many employees might be worried about all of the above is rather difficult. In May last year (towards the end of the first lockdown) the CIPD suggested that 44% of workers were worried about a return to the office.
For and Against?
Of course much has happened in the 13 months since that survey which may have changed opinions for worse or for better.
On the one hand we had an awful and tragic second wave of COVID-19 during the winter of 2020/21, which at its peak was killing around 1,800 people a day across the nation. Other worrying news has come in the realisation that survivors of COVID-19 might still be susceptible to the longer form of the illness – so called Long Covid – which we wrote about earlier this year. And then there is the growing acceptance that the nation is probably now facing a third wave of the virus following earlier restrictions being eased.
Yet on the other hand we have lots of increasingly positive news to consider too.
Most notably the NHS - and a small army of volunteers - has delivered a massive vaccination programme that has already reached most of the UK adult population, and is continuing to proceed at around half a million doses every single day.
Other – and directly related – good news arrived last week in the Office for National Statistics (ONS) assessment that around 8 in 10 UK adults now have COVID-19 antibodies. These antibodies have either been delivered via the vaccination programme or exposure to the disease itself, and whilst this does not guarantee immunity to future mutations, it certainly suggests that the concept of “herd immunity” is now far closer for the nation as a whole.
And then we have other positives such as a far improved testing regime, changed personal and corporate behaviours, and overall national learning that 16 months of pandemic experience has delivered.
So where are workers now?
So with all the above to consider, where are people now regarding return to work anxiety?
Whilst we don’t have a directly comparable survey to the 2020 CIPD study, recent research by insurer Canada Life suggests that there are far greater concerns about the return to work amongst those that have actually had the virus in the past than those that haven’t.
And YouGov research publish in April found significant population concerns around the return to normality post-pandemic – with 34% worried about being in crowds, 8% concerned about returning to the workplace, and a further 6% troubled by travel and commuting options too.
Of course these figures may rise or fall depending on the evidence that develops around the Indian variant of COVID-19 (now known as the Delta Variant) in the weeks and months ahead – but it does seem likely that at least some workers will be experiencing increased anxiety directly related to their proposed return to work.
Employers should take action now!
Yet facilitating that return to the physical workplace is something that remains crucial for many UK businesses desperate to return to normality and full productivity, and is likewise important for the nation as the UK attempts to further accelerate those positive signs of national economic growth in recent months.
So it follows that employers need to deploy whatever support is available to help workers manage their entirely valid levels of anxiety in this unprecedented situation.
Of course some of the listed concerns might be instantly lessened if employers continue to show the understanding and some flexibility which so many organisations deployed during the worst periods of the crisis. So offering more flexible commuting hours and/or phasing a return to the workplace so that the workforce does not all return on the same day and time will go a long way to ease some of these worries.
And employers should also ensure that all returning workers are aware of all those valuable employee benefits and wellbeing offerings that can provide some practical assistance too. So items such as Employee Assistance Plans, Mental Health apps, Remote GP services, or any other useful ancillary tools provided alongside the core employee benefit protection tools should be promoted and made accessible wherever possible.
Ultimately every organisation across the UK needs to collectively return to work just as quickly as they can once restrictions allow, and it seems likely that the more sympathetic, understanding, and supportive employers may face fewer challenges in delivering on this pivotal aim.
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.
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.