Since the introduction of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) in March 2020, the government estimates that over 11.6 million jobs have been furloughed and 1.9 million jobs still remain on furlough. However, following ‘Freedom Day’, more and more businesses have begun the return to the traditional working environment or are in the process of planning to. Returning to the workplace after a lengthy absence, whether from a career break or maternity leave, can be a daunting prospect at the best of times. But extra care and consideration will need to be given when reintroducing furloughed members of staff back into the workplace. As an employer, it is important that you ease any anxieties that returning employees may have. This includes the more obvious and legally required Covid-19 safety measures, but also addressing historic or new instances of bullying, including ‘furlough bullying’.
Returning employees will almost certainly have mixed feelings about returning to the workplace, particularly on physical and mental health grounds. It is important that employers carry out stringent risk assessments, this includes implementing the correct social distancing procedures but also gauging the general mood of the staff. Issues such as burnout during the pandemic may arise but also equality issues, particularly for employees previously on furlough. Manager must be wary of any equality issues that may arise and make sure the needs of different groups of workers are met.
Those returning from furlough may have been dealing with feelings of worthlessness and uncertainty during the pandemic. And for many, they would have been questioning whether furlough was simply delaying redundancy. Employers should be prepared to deal with questions around the original decision to furlough and the employee’s future in the business. Businesses should be prepared to explain the original selection process, including the aims and needs of the business and any scoring matrix used to reach the decision to furlough certain members of staff. If possible, you should assure the employee that their position in the business is secure going forward and their role is still valued. Equally, you must be wary of instances of bullying and discrimination towards these staff. The pandemic has seen the emergence of ‘furlough bullying’, where workers on or returning from furlough are viewed differently from full time workers and their productivity is unreasonably questioned. Again, communication is key and you should consider making training on the topic mandatory for other staff.
More generally, the pandemic has led to many historic employee relations cases going unresolved or being paused. This includes formal grievances, disciplinary allegations, or bullying and harassment. A return to the workplace could bring the parties involved back into close contact and new issues could then arise. Employers should be aware that the pandemic does not relieve them of their responsibility to deal with historic cases and safeguard the health and wellbeing of their staff. You should have agile systems in place for dealing with this, such as confidential reporting lines, record keeping and specific policies to guide any formal disciplinary processes.
As always, it is important that you take any incident of bullying seriously and consider taking expert legal advice. Please get in touch email@example.com if you need advice on any element of workplace bullying or returning to the office.