Tracy Madgwick

May 24, 2021, 1:00 PM

Welcoming furloughed employees back into the workplace

“There is mounting concern about the mental health impact the return to work may cause for many.”

In the Chancellor’s budget of March 2021 he confirmed that the furlough scheme will now run until September 2021, to continue to provide much needed support to employers and employees as we embark on the road map out of lockdown.

Over 11 million employees have been furloughed since March 2020 and at the height of the scheme’s peak, on 8th May 2020, it is reported that 30% of the UK workforce was on furlough. That’s 8.86 million jobs.

While this is good news financially for charities and other employers, the result is that, by September, many employees will have been out of the workplace for up to 18 months. There is mounting concern about the mental health impact the return to work may cause for many, as well as the potential reduction of skills of these workers over this period.

Absence breeds insecurity

Eighteen months is a significant period of time to be away from the workplace – even longer than traditional periods of maternity leave and shared parental leave. Those affected may be feeling anxious about returning due to fears about infection or concerns about job security and what the ‘new normal’ will look like.

They may be feeling disconnected with their employer and team and might also be feeling undervalued due to being selected for furlough in the first place. A loss of confidence is also a likely consequence, with imposter syndrome kicking in due to this prolonged absence. A reduction of skills among those who have been furloughed throughout is also a very real issue.

As an employer it’s important to acknowledge these issues and prepare for employees returning to the workplace after a long period of absence. To ensure this return is as positive as possible for everyone, here are some key areas to take into consideration:

  • Contractual arrangements – do these need reviewing? Has the role changed, or do the hours of work need to change to reflect the needs of the business?
  • Work location – will all employees return to the workplace full-time or will there be a new hybrid model of working from home and in the workplace? As an employer, can you accommodate flexibility around working from home on a long-term basis? If so, ensure people have the right equipment and risk assessments are completed.
  • Health and wellbeing – talk to your team and find out what they might need to support their wellbeing. Think about what you could provide your employees with here, whether it be access to counselling, an employee assistance programme or fresh fruit in the office to promote healthy eating. It’s also worth considering financial wellbeing support or signposting, as many will be dealing with financial worries resulting from the pandemic.
  • COVID Secure Workplace – the workplace will need to be fully COVID secure and communications need to be very clear around this. They will need to provide reassurance to worried employees about how new health and safety rules will protect them and the obligations they have to follow these, such as social distancing and the wearing of any required PPE.
  • Training – many furloughed employees will not have completed any training during this period and the anxiety they may feel about their skills deteriorating may well be valid. Consider offering refresher training or re-inductions to ensure returning employees’ skills are up to date and they’re up to speed with company policies and procedures.
    Management training would also be beneficial. This would ensure managers are fully aware of their responsibility to support their teams and give them the skills to do so. This applies not only in their day-to-day work but also in identifying any potential mental health issues, emphasising the importance of regular one-to-ones.

  • Performance Management – if appraisals are coming up, include those returning from furlough in the process but focus on the future to build engagement and confidence, setting goals and discussing any support needed by the employee to meet these.

  • KIT days and phased returns – some businesses may be in a position to offer Keeping in Touch days, or a phased return to those who have been off for a long period, to ease employees back into work. This is something that may or may not be welcomed by the employee, depending on their circumstances, so it’s important to talk to people individually to determine what the best option would be for them.

There are a number of ways to ensure a positive welcome for furloughed employees back into the business and this can be a positive experience for all if it is planned and prepared for. Engaging with employees on what support they need and addressing their concerns will help you welcome back a motivated and enthusiastic team, ready to help your business grow and succeed in the future.

Tracy Madgwick

Tracy Madgwick is a seasoned HR professional who has held a number of senior HR roles in well-known charities. She currently provides HR support to smaller charities who have no in-house support, as well as providing additional capacity for existing HR teams in larger organisations.