Lifting the lid on the return to workplace toolkit

Blog posts

16 Sep 2021

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek 
Senior Research Fellow 

Conversations and practical recommendations are gathering pace regarding returning to the workplace.  Although this may be welcomed by some employees, there may be others that have justified concerns about returning. Thus it is still important to take time for effective planning, ensuring that robust risk management processes are in place.  

All organisations have a legal obligation to ensure the health and safety of employees at work, under the Health and Safety Act (1974), consequently ensuring this is planned, managed and conducted successfully is important for employee engagement, trust, wellbeing and positive organisational outcomes. 

Research suggests that some employees with long-term health conditions, including those living with overweight and obesity may have had greater risks of severe Covid related outcomes if they contract Covid-19, as well as having limited or delayed access to treatment. This may lead to additional anxieties when discussing returning to the workplace, and as such it is important that these concerns are handled sensitively and in a non-discriminatory manner. As part of our PURPOSE (Promoting Understanding and Research into Productivity, Obesity Stigma and Employment) programme, IES has recently produced a ‘return-to-workplace’ toolkit to help organisations, HR and line managers think about the steps involved to ensure a smooth transition back to the workplace post the Covid-19 lockdowns for employees living with overweight and obesity.

The toolkit outlines a six-step ‘re-opening pathway’ highlighting the roles of organisational managers, line managers and HR to be sensitive to the needs of employees, including consultation with other relevant stakeholders including Trade Unions, health and safety representatives and Occupational Health teams. The six steps are:

Planning: Organisational leaders have an important role in managing and shaping this process, making sure that clear decisions are made, and that information is shared in a credible, honest and timely manner to reduce any additional employee stress. HR should review current policies and practices in relation to returning to work, health and safety, wellbeing, sickness absence and flexible working to make sure they are fit-for-purpose in the light of Covid-19 and resultant risks. Line managers have an important role in engaging with employees - and employees may also want to think about what the organisation can do to help them. 

Risk Assessments: Undertaking a risk assessment is a way for an organisation to strategically consider what you must do to protect employees from harm. Ideally, risk assessments should be done in consultation with health and safety reps and Trade Union colleagues. For those living with obesity or any other long-term health condition, additional consultation with experts may be required to consider whether further adjustments are needed.

Employee Consultation: Employers have a duty of care to consult with their employees about health and safety issues in the workplace. An anonymous questionnaire sent to all staff may be a quick way for an organisation to determine whether there is a desire to return to the workplace, and what issues need to be addressed before employees return. This could help employers identify more hidden at-risk groups and should be conducted in good time, allowing for analysis and amendments to risk assessments, reflecting employee needs.  Further consultation may also be required with health and safety representatives, and (if applicable) Trade Unions.

Return-to-Workplace Conversations: It is important for organisations to take an individualised approach and consider the physical, emotional and wellbeing implications for individual employees. Such conversations could raise sensitive issues, and HR should have training and support in place for managers. Line managers must be aware of the impact that Covid-19 has had on both an employee’s physical and emotional wellbeing. Conversations should be defined as supportive, two-way dialogues, where employees have a ‘safe-space’ to discuss perceived risks and solutions or adjustments required. Line managers must also highlight the confidential nature of these conversations if this will help people living with obesity talk about any concerns they may have.

Opening Up: All employees should be fully briefed before their first day back in the workplace, including being updated on new risk assessments, health, safety and wellbeing policies, any new Covid-19 office protocols and what the first day back in the workplace might look like. Employers should remember that some employees with long-term health conditions, or employees whose situations may have changed throughout lockdown may have a preference to continue to work from home. These employees will still need to be appropriately managed, receive workplace assessments and have access to all the information and organisational communication that those in the workplace receive.

Review: Once the workplace has been re-opened, policies and practices will need to be reviewed and updated, making sure that measures have been safely implemented and are working well, ensuring they are not discriminatory or stigmatising to any employee groups. Ongoing conversations should be occurring with staff to determine if any further adjustments are required.  As people become more used to the situation, there may be a tendency to ‘de-risk’ – this should not happen, as all employees still need to be protected at work. Ongoing management regarding the implementation of prevention measures ensures that risk assessed guidelines are being correctly applied to reduce risks to staff.

Employees living with overweight and obesity may have additional concerns about returning to the workplace if it will increase their likelihood or risk of contracting Covid-19. They may also be concerned about the associated stigma that has occurred as a result of the link between obesity and Covid-19 and how this may affect their employment.  It is therefore hoped that the practical nature of this toolkit provides senior management, line managers, HR and employees the confidence to manage this transition in both a safe and non-stigmatised way, so the health, safety and wellbeing of all employees can be maintained at what could be an anxiety-inducing time.

Novo Nordisk has provided funding to the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) to undertake the creation of the PURPOSE programme, including the production of this report. Novo Nordisk has had no influence over the content of this report or this programme. IES retains full and final editorial control over this report and all aspects of the PURPOSE programme.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.