UK workers uncomfortable with August return to work

18 June 2020 4 min. read
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Nearly two-thirds of Britons expect to return to work by the end of August, but many feel uncomfortable with the news. As lock-down measures ease in the world of work, many measures remain which police the home-lives of workers, suggesting they are expected to put themselves at risk for the economy while Covid-19 remains a threat to their health.

A recent study from CIL Management Consultants suggested that the vast majority of the British public said they were most looking forward to visiting friends and family after lock-down measures eased. Around 80% of respondents said it was at least a high priority, while of that 55% said it was top priority.

In contrast, 37% said they expect to work from home more than before. This may be a result of having become aware that the majority of their responsibilities were not contingent on sitting in the office – but it is also likely that many workers in that poll were wary of rushing back to work, and exposing them to a dreaded second wave of Covid-19.

UK workers uncomfortable with August return to work

With no vaccine in sight to shield workers from the pandemic, and the number of daily new cases in Britain still above 1,000, a sizeable portion of the labour market feels it is being pushed back to work for the state of the economy, while a significant health risk remains. According to a new survey from communications consultancy BCW (formerly Burson Cohn & Wolfe), 60% of staff expect to return to work will happen by the end of August, but are feeling uncomfortable. Around 45% of respondents said they were most concerned about bringing Covid-19 into their home – something that the UK Government’s approach to life beyond work suggests is still a real danger.

While the Government has been relaxing rules on social distancing to enable non-essential businesses to return to work, it has also been enforcing a number of strict rules including a ban on sex with members of other households. While Prime Minister Boris Johnson has since announced that two households may join together in a “support bubble” – ending the ban in some select circumstances – the level of exposure people will experience to people beyond their own household is still much lower than they would encounter at work.

In many workplaces, the two-metre social distancing rule is impractical, meaning the Government is now flirting with scrapping it in such circumstances. Meanwhile, the use of public transport has already spiked, and such measures would see it boom further, meaning many commuters would soon be placed in extremely close proximity to non-household members for extended periods of time.

Relating to this, the study also exposed a trust issue many workers face. Just under one-third said they do not trust that their colleagues to take proper precautions in their own lives, while a number clearly do not think their workplace has adequate safety measures in place. As they approach the point of returning to work, 70% said they expect to be consulted about plans and changes to improve work safety. Almost three-quarters of staff also stated they expect new cleaning protocols to be introduced, while 69% said they expect to receive communications about detailed plans should Covid-19 be detected in the workplace.

What will not have helped with making staff feeling comfortable about returning to work is that they feel there is a clear disconnect between what they expect, and what management is likely to deliver. For example, 70% of staff said they would feel more comfortable if there were to be routine testing of Covid-19 among all employees, yet 50% say they think it is unlikely their employer will do this. In the long-term, this looks unlikely to improve as 72% said they would feel more comfortable about returning if all employees in the office had been certified as receiving the Covid-19 vaccine when it becomes available, yet 44% say they think it is unlikely to happen. If this continues to be the case – with organisations pushing their staff to return to the office to stay afloat while not offering much reassurance in return for that vital work – the relationship between the workers and their employers may quickly turn toxic in the ‘new normal’.

James Morley, Head of Business Transformation, BCW, said, “Forward thinking bosses know that the way they support staff has a huge bearing on their future ability to attract and retain talent on the back of the crisis.  As such, managers play a key role in supporting their teams: showing they are listening and consulting, addressing the concerns of those who are nervous while also laying out clear, realistic and concrete actions, communicating plans effectively and ensuring they deliver.”