Return to work plans: Beyond the physical environment

June 2020 looks set to be the month that the United Kingdom takes its first tentative steps towards reopening the economy.  Some schools will partially reopen on Monday, whilst many shops are gearing-up to open in a socially-distanced manner from the middle of the month too.  And other industry sectors have already returned to action following the Prime Minister’s televised speech to the nation on the 10th May.

With so many returning to work, now is now time for employers to begin to implement their carefully considered and formulated return to work plans. The principal initial focus for most employers will, rightly, be the aim of providing a safe business or workspace environment for their employees, clients, and suppliers to operate within.  That’s challenging enough of course, but I would urge organisations to consider issues well beyond the physical limitations of their buildings and surrounding areas.  In particular I would encourage employers not to overlook the following three areas of wider risk and wellbeing issues for their business and its workers;

1.Provide and promote a range of counselling options

Regardless of employment sector or status, the last few weeks has been a deeply challenging time for the mental health of employees across the country.

Some will have lost relatives or close friends to COVID-19, and the distancing effect of the lockdown suggests that employers may not always be aware of such deeply personal losses.  And with the virus very far from eliminated in the UK, further coronavirus deaths remain likely. So employers should now consider highlighting access to any bereavement counselling services that may be available alongside their existing Employee Benefits offerings.

Then there are the less obvious areas of poor mental health that will also need to be supported.  Many workers will have been living in cramped home environments with little opportunity for fresh air, exercise, or social interaction.  Others will rightly be concerned about the risks they face in travelling to and from the workplace.  And a few might even have succumbed to addictions such as drugs or alcohol use during the darker moments of the lockdown. 

Any, or all, of these issues might be deeply damaging to the health and wellbeing of workers.  It follows that employers should ensure that access to any counselling and support services available are regularly promoted so that employees are aware of – and make use of – these important tools. 

2.Financial Wellbeing

The household incomes of many UK workers has already been drastically and unexpectedly reduced during the COVID-19 lockdown, and the reality is that income levels and bonus payments for millions more are likely to be stagnating or reducing as the tail of the crisis continues throughout 2020.

Inevitably this will add yet further pressure to many family finances that were already under stress following a decade of austerity.  This in turn will encourage more workers to borrow just to meet their household day-to-day living costs, adding to the UK’s already significant level of personal debt. 

Of course in these deeply uncertain and challenging times it is unlikely that employers can offer any direct financial assistance to such workers, but they can still provide some practical assistance in other ways.  Options include Workplace Financial Education (which can be delivered face to face or via webinar), partnering with a finance provider to offer loans at low cost and based on more than credit score alone, and debt counselling services.  The costs associated with these options are relatively minor, yet they can make a huge difference to many financially stressed workers.

3.Insurances to protect BOTH employees and employer

Finally, and certainly not least, the pandemic has already demonstrated the real importance of some of the more established Employee Benefits offerings.

The importance of Group Life Assurance protection for the dependents of a deceased employee is now far more evident.  Other protections such as Group Income Protection and Private Medical Insurance may well become much more important and well-used in the months ahead.  Employers should retain and promote such services so that employees are aware of, and reassured by, access to these offerings.

But employers should also think about how insurances can protect their business as well as their workers.  The pandemic is no respecter of status or income, and many organisations will now be much more acutely aware of how exposed their business might be to the loss of those key employees whose role is pivotal to the success of their business.  So I would strongly encourage every employer to urgently revisit key-person protection insurances to minimise this risk in the uncertain economic months and years ahead.

Of course many of the tools I have highlighted above are already available to employers as part of their wider Employee Benefits offerings.  And others can be introduced quickly and remotely - and often at a relatively low cost too – as needed.  It’s likely that implementing these three important steps will help many more employees successfully return to the workplace after the lockdown with the minimum of stress and the maximum of support.  And that in turn will help employers to return to productive normality also.

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 Howden’s coronavirus hub.

(Published 28/05/20)

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.

Steve Herbert

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