A CIPD survey of more than 1,000 working adults in the UK  suggests that a number of employers are failing to meet three important criteria before asking people to return to their normal workplace following periods of closure or homeworking due to the coronavirus: is it essential, is it safe and is it mutually agreed? 

From 1 August, the Government has suggested that the onus will be on employers to decide if it’s appropriate for people who’ve been working from home during the pandemic to return to their normal place of work. But the survey found a worrying lack of consultation with workers to date, meaning that many returns to work have not been mutually agreed and workers’ concerns about health and safety have not been addressed. The CIPD is therefore urging employers to consult with employees and make the return to work gradual.

Many returns to the workplace have not been mutually agreed

Less than half (44%) of workers feel they’ve been adequately consulted about a potential return to the workplace. This drops to 28% of people with a disability, suggesting that employers may be taking a one-size-fits-all approach without allowing for individual concerns. 

Of those who are already going to their normal place of work, one in four (26%) say their employer is putting pressure on them to do so.

People are more likely to say they’ve received adequate information about the return to work than they are to say they’ve been adequately consulted (55% compared with 44%), suggesting that some employers are relying too much on one-way communication methods. 

A significant minority of employers have not adequately addressed health and safety concerns 

One in five of those already attending their normal workplaces aren’t satisfied with the health and safety measures their employer has put in place during the pandemic. A further three in ten feel anxious about catching or spreading COVID-19 at their workplace. Of those who haven’t yet returned to work, one in ten (12%) don’t trust their employer to provide a safe environment when they return to the workplace.   

Those who say they’ve been adequately consulted are more likely to be satisfied with their employer’s response to the pandemic (both in terms of health and safety, and more generally) and less likely to report feelings of anxiety about the return to work. 

Some are looking forward to returning to work, but anxiety persists 

52% of workers are looking forward to returning to their normal workplace, but nearly a quarter (24%) disagree. Nearly half (45%) of workers are anxious about returning to the workplace, rising to 57% of those with a mental health condition and 48% of people with a physical health condition. Anxiety is also more likely among those who feel they haven’t been adequately consulted – 62% of people who feel like they haven’t been adequately consulted about returning to the workplace feel anxious about it, compared to 42% of people who have been adequately consulted.

Over a third of workers (35%) feel anxious about commuting to work and 60% of people working in London are anxious about commuting. 

Melanie Green, Research Advisor at the CIPD, comments: 

‘Workplaces should only be opening up if it’s essential to the business model, it’s mutually agreed with staff and it’s safe to do so. But our research suggests many employers are failing to meet these three tests. 

‘Employers must ensure they’ve taken all necessary steps to protect their staff against the virus and must not get complacent here. The rise in workplace transmissions over the last few weeks shows how vigilant employers need to be and the level of responsibility on their shoulders. 

‘Our research also raises serious concerns about the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental wellbeing. While some employees may be looking forward to returning to their normal place of work, perhaps because isolation and lack of social connections are taking a toll on their mental health, others are anxious about how safe it is to do so.  Some employees’ personal circumstances – whether that’s is an existing health condition or juggling childcare and work – may also create extra anxiety about returning to work. Employers shouldn’t make assumptions about what’s right for their people.

‘Greater consultation with staff will help employers to understand people’s concerns, what they can do to put them at greater ease and how they can make the return to work safer and less stressful. People are much more likely to agree to a return to work if they’ve had the opportunity to voice their concerns and work through solutions with their employer.’  

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