Coronavirus return to work u-turn causes mental health concerns for HR


The UK government is now advising office workers to work from home again where possible following a rise in the number of coronavirus cases across the country.

As many workplaces have continued to allow staff the option to work from home, the new rules mean that things are unlikely to physically change for many workplaces, but the adjustments employers make to ensure the health and safety of their staff will be more important than before.

The main concern for offices is what effect a prolonged period of working from home could have on employees, as the new restrictions could be enforced for another six months.

Official response from Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, advised HR to recognise “that isolation and anxiety could become an issue for some of their workers.”

He said: “To counter this, they should ensure managers are regularly checking in with their teams, are asking about their wellbeing and signposting to support services where necessary.”

Speaking to HR magazine Shakeel Dad, employment partner at Addleshaw Goddard, said that return from furlough and lack of career progression will also need to be addressed to try and quash anxieties.

“More will become clearer in the coming days, but one thing that remains clear is that transparency and open communication with employees remains key,” he added.

For workplaces where working from home is not an option, like those in the hospitality sector which now has 10pm curfew, being allowed to stay open is likely to be both a relief and a concern.

Becky Neale, founder of Stonechat HR Consulting, told HR magazine: “It was good to see restrictions as opposed to closures being imposed on sectors like hospitality and consideration given to the mental health and wellbeing of employees with the work from home if you can message as opposed to the previous you must work from home.”

Yet Nikola Southern, employment partner at Kinglsey Napley, warned that the guidance could create further redundancy concerns for these sectors: “Whilst City firms may be able to adapt to working from home on a more permanent basis, this, combined with other recently announced restrictions and the end of the furlough scheme, will inevitably lead to job cuts in sectors like travel and hospitality in particular.

“Employers across the board need to be very careful in decision making around return to the workplace as well as redundancies to avoid potential claims, including discrimination.”

More on return to work:

Southern also said that the new guidance could mean that employees have a stronger case for refusing to return to the workplace if they have the reasonable belief that there is serious or imminent danger to their health due to the heightened risk of contracting the virus.

She added: “Dismissing employees who refuse to return to work citing such concerns would potentially be unfair, leading to uncapped compensation.”

Making workplaces COVID secure is now a legal requirement of employers and, though government has softened its message to return to work, official guidance maintains that if it is safe to do so you can return to work.

It also maintains that: “Employers must make reasonable adjustments to make sure workers with disabilities, or physical or mental health conditions, aren’t substantially disadvantaged when doing their jobs.”