Published on: 10/05/2021
Over a year ago, the world we knew changed. We became teachers to our children whilst working from home ourselves, we traded commutes for Zoom calls with colleagues and customers and swapped quick lunches at our desks for a walk around the block with the kids and the new puppy. We rebooked and cancelled holidays, we started wearing masks and made hand sanitiser a staple in our bags and coat pockets, we met friends and family for socially-distanced coffee and tea in parks and gardens and rejoiced in the summer when we thought normality was just around the corner - only to do it all over again at the beginning of this year. We had to adjust. We had to learn. We had to be patient. We had to dig really, really deep.
Now, as we are slowly emerging from what seems like the longest year in history, the prospect of going back to work as per usual excites many, but many are also scared, for a lot of reasons.
The landscape of the UK’s workforce is mainly made up of employed people, over 32 million of us, with only 4.4 million people recorded as self-employed in 2019 and according to the same survey, only 1.7 million worked from home pre-Corona times. As the first lockdown hit, this changed dramatically, and the majority of people found a way to combine work and home-life, with even the biggest companies sending most of their employees home. This was a huge adjustment which many people loved, but others noticed that they missed their colleagues, the interaction with real human beings and some also noted that the time on commutes usually gave them some time out, which they now didn’t have anymore. Added to the mix are those people who suddenly found themselves either out of a job or on furlough. The total number of people having been furloughed is estimated to be around 9.6 million. We probably all dream a lot about having more time and furlough certainly offered that, but, after a certain period of time, without a job, a purpose and reduced income, and nowhere to go, furlough certainly was no sabbatical. Moreover, around 4 million people, those that were clinically vulnerable, were told to shield, and have spent most of the last 12 months holed up at home. I personally know a few shielders and none of them told me they had the time of their lives. They were locked up, unable to go anywhere, relying on others for everything, including essential shopping and running errands. Finally, official unemployment figures are difficult to find but in January there were assumed to be approximately 1.7 million people hit by unemployment, many of those directly affected by huge cuts in the retail sector. Finding yourself suddenly without a job and money in a pandemic is a mix of events no one wants to experience, especially when life is up in the air like it was in the depths of the lockdowns.
Now, however, with increasing volumes of vaccinations and self-testing kits circulating, the easing of restrictions is within reach and with this also the possibility to go back into our offices, workshops and other places of work. Some of us can’t wait, others’ anxiety is in overdrive. Feeling apprehensive about joining work as per usual can have many reasons. Maybe you have forgotten how to make small-talk. Perhaps you really enjoy the peace and quiet at home and those little comforts and the fact that no one is looking over your shoulder. Or you have realised that you don’t like your job much and want to do something else. Maybe any small or bigger crowds really scare you and you wonder how clean and safe your work really is? Will everyone be sticking to social distancing, washing hands regularly, sanitising and wearing masks? As employers you need to be aware that those are some of the thoughts your employees may be having, and they are not to be laughed off, brushed aside or to be belittled. Mental health has taken a hit for many people and you have no idea which battles people are fighting within themselves.
For shielders, going back to work feels especially frightening, not just because of possible infections, but also how others may react towards them, having lacked face to face human contact for so long. Maybe they have put on weight and are conscious of their new body shape. Making unkind and thoughtless comments, such as comparing shielding to a long holiday and pointing out they gained a few pounds are topics off the table.
Therefore, rather than an extra delivery of biscuits or a few trays of cakes and buns, your employees will need support to reintegrate into working from the workplace. They need sympathy, empathy and the knowledge that their fears and concerns will be taken seriously and not brushed under the carpet.
Like with any big change, people are often initially reluctant. That is not a reflection on you or your company but most likely a natural reaction and again, it needs a little time. If you show trust and consideration for your employees, they will trust you and work better and harder for you. And that’s a trade off that works all of the time anyway.
Your job as an employer is definitely not to be a counsellor, but to be supportive, kind and human. The pandemic and its side-effects have hit us unexpectedly but they were no one’s fault. Remember this. You will save on biscuits and snacks and save your employees along the way, too.