Tina Chander: When furlough ends, safety and mental health issues could start

As furlough ends and employees begin to return to factories and offices, employers need to consider what physical measures are needed to ensure they remain Covid-secure and that it is safe for their people to return to work.

The Health and Safety at Work Act has long-provided for safe working environments, but in the context of the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, employers must also consider the mental wellbeing of their employees and the stresses that may come with returning to work. Despite the vaccine rollout, employees may still be anxious about returning, concerned about the potentially increased likelihood of coming into contact with the virus.

Employers should also be wary of the impact that any new working conditions and practices could have on employees; change can be stressful and it may take time for them to adjust to new working patterns. We already know anxiety is at an all-time high, more than double pre-Covid levels, and this is having a massive impact on employees and their productivity.

Employers should ensure that there are avenues available for employees to discuss any stress that they may be experiencing, and seek assistance to help them manage those stresses if necessary.

These measures might include pointing employees in the direction of helplines, or investing in training some of their employees to become mental health first aiders and encouraging other colleagues to approach them with their concerns on a confidential basis.

It may also be appropriate in some circumstances to consider altering working patterns to reduce the number of employees in the office at any given time, or to enable employees to work flexibly, spending part of their week at home to assist them in managing their stresses and anxieties about returning to the workplace.

Key triggers identified for work-related stress include workload pressures, workplace interpersonal relationships and changes at work, all of which are likely to be amplified, given the current economic disruption, job insecurity and social distancing requirements.

Now is the time for organisations to consider a ‘Stress Risk Assessment’, which will allow the organisation to focus clearly on the newly emerging drivers of stress and demonstrate the steps taken to minimise their impact.

Any existing risk assessment is not likely to be fit for purpose under the current circumstances, so performing a newly devised assessment will demonstrate a responsive and flexible attitude toward protecting the mental wellbeing of the workforce.

Raising awareness of mental ill health, empowering individuals to look after themselves and importantly, training line managers will be significant in ensuring a workforce is future fit.

It is by identifying the causes of stress and trying to deal with them that a business can demonstrate it took reasonable steps and fulfilled its duty of care to its employees. Those that fail to act appropriately could face a slew of workplace personal injury claims.

Tina Chander is partner and head of the employment law team at Wright Hassall