UK & Europe
As summer faded into autumn, England’s office-based commuters were exhorted to return to their offices – to sip their morning coffees, buy their sandwiches, pop into M&S for some socks while keeping the nation’s transport infrastructure ticking over. By October, the growth in Covid-19 infection numbers prompted a change in direction in England: back to work from home if you can. This meant that the ‘Do I? Don’t I?’ question that had troubled so many of the nation’s workers in the early hours returned with a vengeance.
Back in the summer when lockdown eased, society sought to establish what it optimistically thought would be some kind of new normality, with each country within the UK taking a slightly different approach. In England, the return to the workplace weighed on many people’s minds. We saw employers undertaking surveys of employees to better understand their views on coming back to the office. And we also saw a focus on employee' mental health, and how individuals had coped with lock down.
According to some sections of the media, some individuals may be suffering from what it christened ‘coronaphobia’ – a fear of leaving the safety of their homes. This might lead to returning to the workplace provoking higher levels of anxiety and stress among some. However, other employees would eagerly anticipate a return to the office. For example, some may find lockdown isolating, and they may find that hard to deal with, and mental health issues may be caused or exasperated by this. The buzz of the office and the companionship it offers can help manage some conditions. Other employees may be ambivalent in relation to a return, or remaining at home.
Employees may also consider themselves how they will travel to their offices, and the guidelines around that; including the usage of public transport.
In England the latest guidance of “work at home if you can do so effectively”, adds further questions. It is not a return to offices being effectively shut in our view. On the contrary, offices are remaining open (subject to COVID secure risk assessments) and they can be used by anyone who “needs” to use them to carry out their role. An individual who is struggling to cope and who needs to attend the office to avoid (or to assist with) mental health issues, and so they can do their job, would surely come within this definition of "need".
Overall employers should have regard to their duties to employees. The employer's duty is to take reasonable care to avoid foreseeable psychiatric or psychological harm to their staff.
Remote working can make it challenging to gauge an employee’s state of mind. In a face-to-face meeting, the interviewer is better able to assess tone, posture and eye contact. A Zoom call is less conducive to assessing emotional responses from employees, particularly if they feel that any anxieties displayed could be perceived as weakness.
By and large, employers can expect the average person to be able to cope with the average job and even with some additional stress over a short period of time. If that stress is prolonged, if the effect of it is clear, or if the employee’s concerns are not acted upon, the chances of a successful claim for illness increase. An employee survey is a positive step to reduce the potential for claims - if it is acted upon. Maintaining regular contact with staff, listening to concerns – and acting on them – is another.
Where employees do return to work, it’s important to ensure there is a dialogue between employer and employee so that concerns and issues can be discussed and managed to the extent appropriate. This may require flexibility and understanding on both sides.
In relation to mental health issues more widely, if as a result of this pandemic employers focus more on mental health then that would be a positive thing in our view.
In relation to any return to work, as and when it comes, employers can plan how they manage that return with employees. Here are some tips for making the transition as painless as possible.
This article was previously published in Insurance Day.