Returning to work

15 Jun 2020 Sandra Bailie    Last updated: 1 Jul 2020

Organisations returning to work or returning staff to the workplace will face a very different environment. This article which includes infection control and wellbeing, is one in series of articles outlining issues to consider.

Every organisation has obligations to ensure the health and safety of both their employees and visitors to their premises and so the implementation of a carefully considered return to work plan will be key. We need to protect individual lives and public health during the phased return to work, comply with health and safety guidance and ensure that employment equality rights are maintained.

Communication is key. Keeping employees informed and up to date on your planning will help to keep everyone engaged and on board with the plan. Knowing they are valued and that you are prioritising their safety is critical to supporting employee mental health and well-being. Transparency is also important for building trust and engagement. 

Every organisation's return to work will be individual to them. They will need to develop clear return to work plans. Plans should be practical and inclusive to ensure staff engagement.

Things to consider

  • What employees should return to work and when?
  • What are the maximum number of employees allowed in the workspace at one time?
  • What communication is needed– when should it start?
  • Should a re-induction process form part of a return to work plan?
  • How will social distancing during breaks be managed?
  • Should the work ‘week’ change to allow shorter days or combine working from home?
  • Are there implications to individual terms and conditions that should be considered?
  • How will essential meetings or teamwork/collaboration be facilitated?  Should the use of video conferencing be long term?
  • How will access to communal areas such as lunchrooms be managed?  
  • What preparations should be made in the event that government restrictions are implemented again?

Mental Health of staff and volunteers

Most people will need a period of readjustment, of settling in to the new normal. People will need time to readjust to the workplace environment, to being around colleagues once again. There could be anxiety over public transport and new health and safety routines. Many employees will have experienced challenging home environments juggling caring responsibilities with their work, some may have been ill themselves or might have lost a loved one. It could be worth considering the provision of additional breaks, shorter days and working from home on a phased basis to support employees in dealing with stress and concerns related to returning to work post COVID-19. Building some flexibility into your return to work plan will help address the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on your employees and mitigate the further risk of long-term absence. 

The CovidWellBeingNI hub provides excellent information and guidance on this. There are self help guides and ways to access help to support your mental health and wellbeing and that of your staff and volunteers. It was created by CovidWellBeingNI a partnership of 15 leading mental health and wellbeing charities and the Health Living Alliance. More information available here

The article on Wellbeing of staff and volunteers has some helpful advice and links.

You can view the Labour Relations Agency webinar on Supporting Mental Health in the workplace here

Infection Control

There are low-cost measures that you can take that will help prevent the spread of infection in your workplace and protect your service users, volunteers and employees. 

  • Make sure your workplace is clean and Hygienic - Surfaces (e.g. desks and tables) and objects (e.g. telephones, keyboards) need to be wiped with disinfectant regularly
  • Clean hands - Promote regular and thorough hand-washing by employees and customers. Put sanitizing hand rub dispensers in prominent places around the workplace. Make sure these dispensers are regularly refilled
  • Display posters promoting hand-washing 
  • Promote respiratory hygiene - Ensure that face masks and / or paper tissues are available at your workplaces, for those who develop a runny nose or cough at work, along with closed bins for hygienically disposing of them
  • Keep communicating and promoting the message that people need to stay at home even if they have just mild symptoms of COVID-19 - Display posters with this message in your workplaces. Combine this with other communication channels commonly used in your organization or business.  Make clear to employees that they will be able to count this time off as sick leave. 

Managing risk of COVID 19 when organising meetings

  • Check and follow government advice.
  • Develop and agree a plan to prevent infection at your meeting or event.
  • Consider whether a face-to-face meeting or event is needed. Could it be replaced by an online event?
  • Could the meeting or event be scaled down so that fewer people attend?
  • Pre-order sufficient supplies and materials, including tissues and hand sanitizer for all participants.
  • Provide information or a briefing (orally and in writing) on COVID-19 and the measures that organizers are taking to make this event safe for participants. 
  • Display dispensers of alcohol-based hand rub prominently around the venue. 
  • Open windows and doors whenever possible to make sure the venue is well ventilated.
  • Provide information or a briefing (orally and in writing), on COVID-19 and the measures that organisers are taking to make this event safe for participants. 

Additional resources and links

A practical guide to making workplaces safer - This guide is designed to support organisations and workers across Northern Ireland to take appropriate measures to keep everyone safe. The guide was produced by the NI Engagement Forum

HSE Working safely through Coronavirus

HSE example risk assessment

Public Health Agency (PHA)

CIPD returning to work toolkit

Labour Relations Agency

Charity Retail Association

NI Business Managing staff health, pay, leave and absence.

WHO Getting your workplace ready for COVID 19

sandra.bailie@nicva.org's picture
by Sandra Bailie

Head of Organisational Development

[email protected]

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