Returning to work: 'once upon a time'

Author: Helen Howson, Director of the Bevan Commission

Once upon a time’ we would ----

---- be up early to travel to work in cars, buses and trains to be at our desks by 9

---- be faced with hours of congestion, pollution and crowds of people

---- work in offices and factories and travel to meet at meetings

---- get back in our cars, on trains and tubes and travel back home exhausted

---- be stressed by the ‘hurry sickness’ and the pressures of travel and work

Life has changed considerably and at great speed over the last few months, in a way which few would have imagined and not have anticipated even six months ago. Lockdown has become a necessity to remain safe and for some people this has been extremely difficult to cope with, impacting upon their physical and mental health and wellbeing.

In February 2020 over 33 million people were in employment (1.7million working from home) - the highest ever and with 4% unemployment, the lowest for some time. Then Covid–19 arrived and overnight many workplaces had to close their doors. Many had to furlough their staff and for those that didn’t, staff had to work from home where they could. We have since become accustomed to the phrase that ‘many things will never be the same’ without fully understanding the impact, or implications, of this for us as individuals, for our workplaces, or for our country as a whole. Businesses, the economy and global markets have taken an unprecedented hit. Many businesses are unlikely to be viable in the future if they keep to the same form as they operated in pre-Covid-19.  

The process of easing of lockdown is now a reality which some will welcome whilst others are more reticent. We will be returning to work but for many this will not be to a workplace or even to the work with which we were previously familiar. It will be to an environment that is equipped and prepared to deal with the continued reality of the Covid-19 virus; with processes, systems and ways of working that aims to ensure we are all kept safe and able to manage via social distancing, handwashing and other limitations that will be imposed upon us.

Many will have adapted to working from home where working around the dining table or some other corner within the household has become routine. Early in lockdown when things were still relatively novel,  I had to call my car insurance company and spoke to a lady who shared her bemusement in working at her dining table and even more strange was working alongside her husband who was also working from home. These things are not so strange now and indeed have become the norm for many.

Experiences and circumstances will of course be different for everyone. Some will be keen to return, whist others will have major concerns depending upon their individual circumstances. This will include those who have the room and environment to more easily work from home, who are juggling their work alongside home schooling and who have a medical condition that places them at higher risk. Whatever our circumstances, the evidence is clear that work is good for your health and wellbeing – especially ‘good’ work. It is also important to remember that not all the same things affect everyone in the same way- in other words, different people have different things they enjoy and dislike.  We must also never lose sight of the profound reality that ‘’ worklessness is the single most important cause of health inequality, social exclusion, deprivation and mortality’’.

As we hear more about returning to work we inevitably also hear about people’s concerns; their fears and also their uncertainty of what is the right thing to do. Assessing the risks and the need to balance safety with getting back to work will be on everyone’ s minds, alongside concerns about what the ‘new normal’ will mean in practice. Some of us will also be reflecting not just upon the safety issues but on the benefits that working at home has offered. Things we may not have initially contemplated- such as the reduced travel time, pollution, costs and the convenience of being at home. Tools such as Zoom (that most of us would not have heard of a few months ago) have made access to people easy. We have quickly become accustomed to using such technology.

Maybe, as we return and reflect upon this we will find a ‘kinder’ world? One that has more time for our neighbours, friends and families – and for each other. A rebalanced life where we have more time to be kinder to ourselves, take more exercise, enjoy our communities and appreciate the nature and seasons as they change around us -which would otherwise have passed us by. However there is also a feeling that the longer lockdown goes on the harder it will be to adjust back…only time will tell. For those returning to a physical workplace (shops, factories, offices) adapting to that work will take time and will need planning and support from employers and colleagues.

So just how will we make the transition and what will work be like from here on? We will all have to take responsibility to prepare for this, whether we are an employer or employee. It will require careful planning and dialogue as we adjust to the “new normal” together. Life-and the workplace in particular-will not be as we knew it. Covid-19 presents us with different challenges around the safety and wellbeing of the workforce – both their physical and mental wellbeing. Some of those returning will have caring responsibilities for vulnerable people at home, some will be worried about their risk of still catching Covid-19 and others will worry about the basics -such as how to get to and from work safely. The stress and concerns of returning and adjusting will require compassionate support, the ability to listen and be flexible, open and inclusive. This is no one person’s responsibility -- it is everyone’s. We will need to work this through together to find the best solutions we can to stay safe and get back to find the new ‘normality’  

‘Once upon a time’ ---- we all left work early and returned late, we got stressed travelling to and fro and spent little time at home with our families and friends. Covid-19 changed all that – hopefully for the better --- let’s take this opportunity to help shape this and change things for the better in such a way that our future Wales is a better place to live, work and play --------

The Bevan Commission will host a ‘return to work after Covid-19 lockdown’ webinar on June 1st, supported by the Society of Occupational Medicine. For more information and to register, click here.


Society Of Occupational Medicine (SOM) - Returning to work toolkits for employers and occupational health professionals

Managing the safe return to the workplace of millions of UK workers needs careful planning.  SOM’s toolkits, produced in partnership with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), Business in the Community (BITC), and Mind, the mental health charity, will help businesses plan to reopen shuttered workplaces.

Free toolkits

There are two toolkits: one for employers and one for occupational health professionals, who are supporting businesses make the workplaces covid-secure. You can download them for free here