The government is once again asking British people to ‘work from home if you can’ amid fears a second lockdown may be approaching. The request comes amid a surge in coronavirus infections which has built steadily throughout the month.
The message represents a rapid retreat from the government’s 1st September campaign to get people back into the workplace. But cases have been rising across Europe since mid-July, with Spain and Greece suffering serious resurgences and the UK following close behind.
In light of this, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the following comment in his speech to Parliament outlining the new restrictions; ‘unless we palpably make progress, we should assume that the restrictions I have announced will last perhaps six months.’ The Prime Minister later noted that workers should keep going in if it is important for their job, mental health, or wellbeing.
Advice on the GOV.UK website singles out office workers particularly, stating that those ‘who can work effectively from home should do so over the winter’, adding, ‘where an employer, in consultation with their employee, judges an employee can carry out their normal duties from home they should do so.’
The leeway this offers presents those working in logistics with a decision about how to proceed that will need to be carefully evaluated on a case-by-case basis. One of the key concerns is likely to be balancing the risk of infection with other physical and mental health concerns.
This risk becomes particularly significant when we consider the dramatic increase in health issues that follows in the wake of financial crisis. An report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies in April, citing a paper by Janke et al. (2020), stated, ‘if employment were to fall by the same amount as it fell in the 12 months after the 2008 crisis, around 900,000 more people of working age would be predicted to suffer from a chronic health condition’, with mental health issues accounting for the largest share.
Speaking to HR Magazine, Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD advised that employers ‘ensure managers are regularly checking in with their teams, are asking about their wellbeing and signposting to support services where necessary.’
But while sensitive conversations will play a part in safeguarding mental health, it is important to recognise that it is economic hardship and uncertainty causing these outcomes, and even the frankest conversations and best resources can only do so much to mitigate these.
More than anything, employees will need clear information on how the situation is progressing and how their lives may be affected. Also speaking to HR, Shakeel Dad, employment partner at the law firm Addleshaw Goddard, noted, ‘more will become clearer in the coming days, but one thing that remains clear is that transparency and open communication with employees remains key.’
The decision of who comes in and who stays home is not one to be taken lightly, and with the GOV.UK website offering advice to employees who feel they are being pressured to return to an unsafe environment, a rise in work disputes may be another of the unfortunate side effects of the pandemic.
This makes ensuring our workplaces follow Covid-secure guidelines all the more essential in the coming weeks. Those who must return to the workplace need to be able to do so with the risk of infection mitigated as much as possible.