HR & Management

HR guidance for SMEs returning staff to work
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How to bring teams back into offices: A mental heath perspective

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Empty city offices are killing the economy. This according to Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who adds, “if we all stay at home working, it’s a big problem”.

The comments were a departure from the Mayor’s previous stance, who had previously told workers only to use public transport if they could not work at home. But as small companies face bankruptcy from a lack of footfall he urged big firms to reconsider staying clear of London.

”The key thing I think we need to understand is that if we all stay at home working it’s a big problem for central London,” Khan added. “Many small businesses rely on your workers going to work, the café bars, the dry cleaners, the shoe repair shops and others.”

With many businesses looking to bring teams back either from furlough or from an extended period of working from home, the risk of a second wave of infections or putting their families in unnecessary danger is impacting people’s desire to come back to the office. Nationally representative research from Theta Financial Reporting across 2,000 UK workers found that 35% of Brits say going back to work in a traditional office environment will have a negative impact on their mental health, which in turn will negatively affect their productivity.

Related: Mental health and COVID-19: How to stay safe and mentally balanced

Chris Biggs, managing director of Theta Financial Reporting, shares his advice employers looking to bring their staff back safely, keeping their mental health top-of-mind. “Employees are obviously concerned about returning to work but if you are bringing your team back, there are some steps you should take,” he says.

First of all, get the input of the team. Businesses should look to gauge their employee’s attitudes on how they want to work going forward, their concerns and desires. “A collaborative approach will be far more beneficial to the company than forcing a decision made onto people without consultation.”

Second, you should consider a mixed model moving forward, with some home working and some office-based work. Mixing shift patterns carefully and in a coordinated fashion will help distance staff and make them feel safer. Office spaces may need redesigning, allowing staff to collaborate safely, and office hours may need to change to avoid peak travel hours, says Biggs.

Third, make sure your safety and safeguarding measures are robust. Ensure you have hand sanitiser in the office at all times, appropriate social distancing and temperature measurements, but be aware to adhere to data protection and GDPR rules if you plan to gather information such as the temperatures of employees. “These steps should help team members feel safer and ​more confident about returning to the office.”

Related: How businesses are adapting to COVID-19: from shock to survival

Behavioural changes in how employees access health and wellbeing benefits due to the pandemic will bring long-term advantages for employers and employees.

With employees needing to engage with healthcare differently during the pandemic, it has enlightened many about the variety of wellbeing services that are available remotely and digitally. This is likely to create long-term behavioural change amongst employees, with a number of positive benefits, and employers have an opportunity to capitalise on this, says Brett Hill, distribution director at Towergate Health & Protection.

“Many health and wellbeing benefits had a digital element prior to the pandemic, such as the ability to access doctors virtually; and others have been enhanced as a result of the crisis, such as virtual physiotherapy appointments. A significant change, however, is that there is now greater awareness of remote and digital wellbeing benefits, as staff have engaged with healthcare in this way to a far greater extent – either out of necessity or increased awareness – as a result of the pandemic,” says Hill. “The ramifications of which, on the healthcare industry and employees, are set to be felt long term as preferences, expectations and delivery methods have shifted.”

Lasting change in engaging with healthcare

The crisis has fundamentally altered the attitude of many employees towards healthcare – as they now fully understand the extent to which it can be engaged with remotely. In fact, a survey of physicians found that remote patient consultations had increased up to six-fold in Europe, representing a game-changer in how employees access healthcare services. Medical professionals have increasingly been providing consultations virtually, advising on appropriate self-care or if further investigation into a concern is required.

Although borne out of necessity for some, accessing services virtually may well become a preference for others – as it saves time travelling and continues to help decrease the risk of the virus spreading. Many employers are now exploring health and wellbeing options that include access to digital healthcare such as virtual GPs, not as a fall-back option but as a go-to. It can save time, is more convenient and many just prefer this approach.

Alternatives in accessing support for mental health

Accessing support remotely has been reflected in how people access support not just for physical health but for mental health too. Employee assistance programme (EAP) providers report that, immediately post lockdown, their traditional face-to-face counselling appointments took place by telephone instead, but gradually online video counselling sessions became more popular as users became more familiar and comfortable with the technology.

Mental health apps have also seen a surge in engagement during lockdown. This may reflect the increased need for emotional support during a period of heightened anxiety for many, but some employees also have more time and inclination to explore such services. 

Related: Can workplace culture survive the legacy of COVID-19?

Many people now feel comfortable accessing support for mental wellbeing via technology, and it may well continue to be a preference for many in the future, with increased ability to actively manage mental health regularly using an app, making use of online hubs and increased access to digital information. Specialist, personalised and in-depth content can provide a lot of information and help, and if people need to talk to someone then phone and video-link can be easier than leaving the house and having to travel to attend an appointment, while still providing that human interaction that can be so important at times.

Working out new fitness regimes

The pandemic has also triggered employees to engage with benefits that support fitness in a way they never had before. The concept of exercising at home is new for some, but as gyms closed, healthcare benefits adapted, offering discounted or free access to online workouts instead. This shift in habit will have created long-term change with how many staff maintain their health.

With a new tranche of employees becoming engaged with fitness during lockdown, there is an opportunity for businesses to capitalise on this momentum, encourage enthusiasm for keeping fit, make benefits available that facilitate this, and communicate benefits that are offered. Now is a good time to remind all staff about benefits available that encourage fitness, such as discounts on trackers, and schemes that offer rewards for workouts: earning points that can be redeemed elsewhere – on cinema tickets, for example.

Related: When perks aren’t enough: Wellbeing needs a culture shift

“There are some silver linings to be gleaned from the Covid-19 crisis and one is increased awareness around the effectiveness of remote and virtual healthcare solutions,” explains Hill. “Whilst face-to-face medical consultations remain important, the pandemic has encouraged employees to experience remote wellbeing services first-hand. This has fundamentally changed how staff access support for health and wellbeing and is likely to lead to lasting behaviour change in healthcare management. Remote services can make healthcare more efficient and effective, for employee and employer alike; this has been realised during the pandemic and is set to continue.”

“Caught up in the hectic day-to-day, mental health in the workplace can still be pushed to the side but telling someone to simply buck up or pull themselves together, even as joke, is not only patronising, it will do more damage,” says Alexandra Anders, Talent Director EMEA, Cornerstone OnDemand

“Still, it’s important to not fall into the trap of thinking that managers can solve everything, they are not counsellors or psychologists.”

Organisations need to help managers recognise when it’s time to suggest someone more qualified, she adds. Simply taking the time to reach out and ask someone if they need to chat can go a long way.

It’s also up to managers to help create an environment of transparency and open communication, where employees are comfortable opening up, feeling no shame or guilt for discussing and dealing with personal issues or fearing potential consequences. “There is no point just introducing a bunch of HR initiatives, these attitudes of openness and acceptance need to be lived, ingrained in the company culture and driven by employees, she adds. “Empathy must be recognised as a strength and employees need to be viewed holistically as a person, not just a productivity tool – there’s a reason human is the first word in HR.”

Guidance for SMEs in returning staff to work

COVID-19 has, undoubtedly, had severe consequences for businesses across the globe, with many employees either being furloughed or faced with working from home for months on end. However, the thought of returning to work as normality begins to resume can seem daunting.

In an effort to address this issue, the new Assurance Assessment Service, launched recently by the British Safety Council provides guidance for employers looking to tackle wellbeing issues in the workplace. It acts as a guide for businesses and organisations from all sectors regarding best practices to implement in the workplace, ensuring the wellbeing of its employees as we continue to adjust to the ‘new normal’.

How the Assurance Assessment Service can help

  • Providing guidance regarding employee wellbeing – focused specifically on the need for risk and health assessments, mental health training for managers and designated employees, as well as the identification of vulnerable staff to help decide the best course of action for their return to work.
  • The Assurance Assessment Service also advises businesses on the best practices for preventing the spread of COVID-19, the need for workplace adjustments where required and the importance of communication between employees.

How does it work?

Professional support and independent assurance is offered from the British Safety Council’s health, safety, wellbeing and environmental experts so that businesses can implement the best strategies to suit their unique circumstances. Individual businesses can also rest assured that the advice they receive is up to date and in line with current government guidance.

Why is this service important?

The British Safety Council recently surveyed businesses and organisations across the country in an effort to determine their stance on wellbeing and the efforts they have undertaken to support this:

  • Nearly 40% of businesses do not have a defined wellbeing and intervention strategy in place for their employees.
  • 21% of businesses would describe their wellbeing strategies as only just ‘getting started’ whilst 4% revealed that they never plan on having one in place.

Concerned with how workplaces will operate upon reopening, the British Safety Council also interviewed ten organisations across various sectors in June 2020, revealing the impact of COVID-19 on employees and their wellbeing. They found that:

  • There have been fewer employees doing more work as a result of backlogs and new incoming clients, severely damaging employees’ work-life balance as a result.
  • Those working from home during COVID-19 have struggled with maintaining mental wellbeing as workplace strategies are difficult to implement with employees working remotely.

The Assurance Assessment Service will aim to help employers tackle these types of challenges to employee wellbeing in the workplace amid their reopening throughout the following months.

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