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  • Writer's pictureImogen Cardwell | Clinical Operations Director at PAM Group

How to help employees return to the workplace

When easing workers back into the workplace, it’s important to focus on employee wellbeing as well as employee safety, for a successful transition.

The gradual transition of employees back to the physical workplace has commenced. If only on a part-time basis, with two-thirds of workers due to adopt hybrid working models and the government urging a staggered approach.

Even so, many employees are understandably anxious about issues ranging from catching the virus and commuting again to having to hot-desk. Some employees are not yet physically fit to return to the physical workplace, due to challenges ranging from Long Covid to unmet musculoskeletal and other health needs, often compounded by long NHS waiting lists.

As with any ‘return to work’ after a long absence, equipping managers to support employees, conducting risk assessments and helping to rehabilitate people where needed can all help. So read on for our top five tips on how to keep employees healthy, as well as safe.

1. Identify vulnerable individuals

Generic policies set by senior leaders to ‘bring everyone back at least three days a week’ might seem ‘fair’ but fail to recognise that some individuals might be incredibly anxious about returning to work. Such as those who are still clinically vulnerable, waiting for operations, struggling with Long Covid or have been on furlough for over a year

Think about which individuals might need assistance to return to the workplace, including those currently off sick. Consider conducting a risk assessment to see who might need a full occupational health or ergonomic (DSE) assessment, so you can build a strategy to support them. Also, think about what you want to achieve by bringing them back to the physical workplace and if that’s actually in their best interests or the best interests of the organisation?

2. Communicate your approach

Where there are compelling reasons to bring individuals back to the workplace, such as the opportunity to increase social interaction and resume knowledge-sharing, communicate what these are to employees. Emphasise the measures you’ve put in place to not only keep them safe from the virus but also support their physical and mental wellbeing.

Instead of just sign-posting employees towards any support services in place, such as OH or an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), explain why you’ve invested in this support. For example, why you want them to use any free counselling services associated with the EAP to talk through concerns before these have a chance to spiral into feeling overly anxious. Or why you want them to have a free Display Screen Equipment (DSE) Assessment, so they can hot-desk in an ergonomic way, to avoid neck, back and shoulder pain.

3. Connect people with similar challenges

Bring people with similar concerns together, be this Long Covid, a musculoskeletal issue or physical de-conditioning after becoming increasingly sedentary over the past 16 months. Do it in a way that allows them to share their experiences and concerns with one another and also gives them the confidence and skills to discuss these with their manager.

Consider offering a workshop with an occupational health expert who can not only help them better understand their condition but also prepare themselves to cope when transitioning from working from home to working in the office. This will really help them to prepare themselves for what to expect, from feeling more exhausted and anxious initially, to ways they can rebuild their resilience and continue their recovery.

4. Put new strategies in place

Look at how best to rehabilitate people affected by the increase in pandemic-related health issues, such as increased anxiety and depression and waiting lists to access treatments and operations. Also, think about your health and wellbeing policies in general.

Although many employees have embraced the opportunities for working from home to exercise more and prepare healthier food, one in three have become more sedentary and put on weight. When bringing people back to the workplace, think about how you can help them to kick-start healthy habits. Make it easier for them to take short breaks and exercise during the day, or before or after work by allowing them to retain some flexibility. What barriers to health does your workplace present and how can you remove these?

5. Create a culture of health

Encourage managers to consider the health of employees, as well as their workload, by ensuring they’re working in healthy ways. This might involve taking regular movement breaks to avoid musculoskeletal issues and disconnecting from work in the evenings and at weekends. Make sure they have time to themselves to recharge and aren’t slipping back into unhelpful old habits such as always taking work home in the evenings or at weekends.

Also, train managers to feel comfortable checking in with people about how they’re coping with the return to the physical workplace and new ways of hybrid working. This will allow them to identify any unforeseen issues to help create a healthy environment. One where people can enjoy the benefits of being around colleagues again, without compromising their health or productivity.


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