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Brexit concerns rose among EU nationals when Boris Johnson took office

HR must focus on supporting EU citizens working in the UK, as research shows fear over Brexit increased at the time of the new PM’s appointment

EU citizens working in the UK became more concerned about Brexit when Boris Johnson took office, according to research from Gartner.

Its Brexit Employee Sentiment Pulse surveyed UK-based employees (both UK and EU citizens) at regular intervals from March 2019 to understand how political events are affecting the workforce. It found a clear unease among some workers over how the new prime minister would handle the UK’s exit from the EU.

When Johnson took office EU citizens working in the UK reported higher-than-normal negative sentiments and concerns about Brexit. Fears over Brexit rose from 29% among EU citizens in the week commencing 15 July, to 34% in the week of 23 July (when Johnson took office).

Similarly, almost half (46%) expressed disgust towards Brexit at the time of Johnson's appointment, up from 35% the previous week. This level of disgust among EU citizens in the week of Johnson’s appointment was also more than double that of the proportion of UK citizens (22%) who felt this way.

The research also found differences in how UK and EU citizens working in the UK felt Brexit would affect their careers. While just 12% of UK citizens surveyed in the week of 23 July said Brexit would negatively affect their ability to find a new job, more than double (30%) EU citizens reported this.

When asked how Brexit will affect their personal lives, half (50%) of EU citizens said they thought it would negatively affect their ability to travel across borders, and two-fifths (37%) said it would affect their personal finances. This was a marked increase from 36% and 25% respectively in the week of 15 July, showing a rise in concern since Johnson took office.

Among both UK and EU citizens workers reported spending 25 minutes on average each day thinking about Brexit at work in the week of 23 July. Researchers said this has remained consistent since April 2019, suggesting Brexit is an ongoing source of distraction in UK workplaces.

Gartner's group VP Brian Kropp said the findings show how major events like Brexit cause stress to the workforce. “In the case of Brexit the stress is largely being caused by the uncertainty of the outcome as it appears a definitive date is approaching,” he told HR magazine.

HR must help its employees navigate this uncertainty, Kropp said. “In particular HR should communicate with employees to ensure they are as up to date as possible with what is happening. They should also ensure they are communicating with employees about what Brexit could mean for their own personal employment. Employees, in particular those who are not British citizens, are concerned that their employment status could potentially change with Brexit. On this point in particular, HR needs to communicate what they are planning on doing.

"However, they also need to be careful to not overpromise to their employees. Because if they guarantee that nothing will happen once we reach a Brexit conclusion, and then they have to make changes, this disruption will be hugely damaging to the workforce,” he added.

Kropp encouraged HR to pay particular attention to supporting EU workers based in the UK: “This is the segment that should be of most concern to organisations. And it is the segment that is experiencing the most uncertainty. In addition to providing support to all EU workers in the UK HR must look at who their high-potential EU workers are.”

The research follows a fast-moving week at Westminster that has, however, failed to clear up uncertainty over whether the UK will leave the EU on 31 October, and whether this is likely to be with or without a deal.

On Wednesday (4 September) Scottish judge Lord Doherty rejected a bid to have prime minister Boris Johnson's plan to shut down parliament ahead of Brexit declared illegal, but this is now being appealed by a group of MPs and peers. A judgement is also expected on a challenge brought by businesswoman Gina Miller and former prime minister John Major to Johnson's prorogation of Parliament.

The House of Lords is currently debating a Labour-backed bill designed to block a no-deal exit on 31 October, after MPs passed the legislation. Opposition parties are also holding talks about how to respond to the prime minister's call for a mid-October election, amid concerns it should be delayed until after an extension has been agreed.