Returning to Work – Great But Deal with ‘Hidden’ Issues Upfront

Issues Under the Surface

It will be a relief for many to get back to work and see colleagues and customers again. It may require days of preparation to get things fully operational but that process will be familiar to staff and managers. However, the ‘lockdown’ weeks have taken many of us into unfamiliar times and tasks. Some colleagues will have found that harder to cope with than others. Some will have been left with inner scars and difficulties that will not be visible. Those need to be dealt with otherwise disruptive reactions will surface at work and colleagues will be at a loss as how to deal with the situations. Below are some pointers to consider.

Life belt on beach – what has happened?

Some members of staff may have suffered the loss of a loved one due to the virus or other causes. Quietly sound out whether there are any indviduals who have experienced bereavement during the lock down. If so, encourage discussions with the affected individuals to see what help they may need – if help is wanted. For example, they may need time off to attend to the affairs of the deceased or need help because they have not been able to grieve in the normal way (e.g. unable to attend the funeral)

Other serious issues may have arisen during the lock down with which individuals are struggling to cope – serious illnesss in the family, debt due to less wages, child care issues to sort out before able to return to work.

You may be thinking ‘Whoa’. I do not have time for that!’ In difficult times, managers who engage with staff win a higher level of trust and commitment from individuals and the team. Those individuals often become ambassadors for the organisation and enhance its reputation as a good employer.

Out of Character Reactions

Forewarn staff by holding small briefing groups to alert them to the issues with which some colleagues will struggle. At the same time, reinforce that the situation will not be helped by untimely jokes. Some colleagues will not appreciate jokes about Covic 19 nor about ventilators. Such banter will be too near the bone for some staff and lead to an unexpected outburst of temper or a confrontation.

State clearly that jokes in bad taste will not be tolerated in the current circumstances. Suggest a member of staff or manager who can be approached, in the first instance, to discuss any concerns an individual may have.

Child Care or Caring for a Dependant

As the resumption of work rolls out, some parents may be concerned about child care as school children may not all start back at the same time. To abide by the social distancing requirement, your organisation may need to introduce some form of shift working which could also solve child care issues. One of the parents/carers may wish to opt temporarily for such shift work so that the other parent/partner is at home, during those shift times, to look after the children or a dependant.

Anxiety Due to Money or Debt Problems

Whilst organisations have been facing major financial issues, some staff will be experiencing great pressures on their household budgets. For some that will due to the 20% or more loss of wages whilst on furlough. Others may have lost all their income because a partner was self employed and not eligible for one of the Government funding schemes.

Debt is debilitating as it leads to loss of sleep, constant worry and the dread of further bills or payment reminders arriving in the post. Your organisation may not be able to help directly but you could suggest servces that are available to help, such as Citizens Advice, CAP (the short name for Christians Against Poverty). Encourage staff to use such services to gain control of their debt situation and give themselves some respite from the pressure. Citizens Advice and CAP offer a free service for debt issues.

Concerns about the Risk of Infection

Some organisations will find it easier than others to reconfigure their operations to make a safer environment. Others may not be able to do that in an affordable way. The crunch decision for individuals will be whether they see and believe that the arrangements will provide a reasonable level of protection. If not, indviduals will have to decide whether there are alternative measures with which managers will agree e.g. continue home working for a while or change the nature of a role temporarily to make that practical. If not the individual will have to discuss the issue with his/her manager. Managers are under a duty to provide a safe and health working environment and if the precautions taken are reasonable in the circumstances. An individual may decide to stay away from work and possibly be dismissed if continued absence is not an option and there are no acceptable alternative solutions to address the concerns.

Those organisations who listen to the reasonable concerns of staff about the arrangements for a return to work and then act upon those, if appropriate, will gain greater respect from staff at this tipping point for both staff and managers and dependants.

Contractual Issues

In the surge to return to work, managers should not overlook the contractual terms of the changes made to an individual’s employment to permit furlough of staff or other options that have been implemented. It would be wise of managers not just to assume consent to returning to work but discuss the process for indicating agreement to return and to remind staff which ‘temporary’ changes to terms will cease on a particular date.

We trust that the above points will help senior managers and managers at all levels to prepare themselves and staff for the issues that need to be adddressed as part of returning process.

© 2020 Jim Harrington, HR Management Dimensions

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