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Three important steps to COVID-19 return to work plans

Across the UK employers are implementing their plans for a safe return to work after the coronavirus shutdown. Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing suggest three important steps no good employer should overlook…

On May 10th the Prime Minister urged many employees to return to work for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown began in March. The speech also signalled the moment many employers began to implement their carefully considered return to work plans.

The initial focus for most employers will be the aim of providing a safe environment for their employees, clients, and suppliers. Yet Employee Benefits intermediary Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing (Howden) believes there are three additional – but important – steps employers might easily overlook.

Steve Herbert, Head of Benefits Strategy at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing said: “We fully accept the unprecedented challenges of creating and implementing a robust return to work plan, but we remain concerned that the focus on the physical environment might result in employers overlooking some wider risks and wellbeing issues for employees and employer alike.”

Howden believes there are three key additional items any good employer should include in their return to work action plans:

Provide and promote a range of counselling options
Regardless of employment sector or status, the last couple of months have been a deeply challenging time for the mental health of UK employees.

Some will have lost relatives or close friends to COVID-19, and the distancing effect of the lockdown suggests that employers may not always be aware of such deeply personal losses. With the virus far from eliminated, further coronavirus deaths remain likely. For this reason, employers should consider highlighting access to any bereavement counselling services they have available alongside their existing Employee Benefits provision.

Supporting employee mental health will also be important. Many workers will have been living in cramped home environments with little opportunity for fresh air, exercise, or social interaction. Others will be concerned about the risks they face in travelling to and from the workplace. A few might even have succumbed to addictions such as drugs or alcohol use during the darker moments of the lockdown.

Any of these issues might be deeply damaging to the employee’s health and wellbeing. So employers should ensure that access to counselling and support services is provided alongside their existing benefit offerings, and regularly promoted to make sure employees are aware of these important tools and encouraged to use these.

Financial Wellbeing
The household incomes of many UK workers have already been drastically and unexpectedly reduced during the COVID-19 lockdown, and the reality is that income levels and bonus payments for millions more are likely to be stagnating or reducing as the tail of the crisis continues throughout 2020.

Inevitably, this will add further pressure to family finances already under stress following a decade of austerity. In turn, this will encourage more workers to borrow just to meet their day-to-day living costs, adding to the UK’s already significant level of personal debt.

Of course, in these uncertain and challenging times it is unlikely employers can offer any direct financial assistance to such workers, but they can still provide some other practical assistance. Options include Workplace Financial Education (which can be delivered face to face, or via webinar), partnering with a finance provider to offer loans at low cost and based on more than credit score alone, as well as debt counselling services. The costs associated with these options are relatively minor, yet they can make a huge difference to financially stressed workers at this difficult time.

Insurances to protect BOTH employees and employer
Finally, and certainly not least, the pandemic has already demonstrated the importance of some of the more established Employee Benefits offerings.

The importance of Group Life Assurance protection for the dependents of a deceased employee is now far more evident. Other protections such as Group Income Protection and Private Medical Insurance may well become more important and well-used in the months ahead. Employers should retain and promote such services so that employees are aware of, and reassured by, access to these offerings.

But employers should also think about how insurances can protect their business as well as their workers. The pandemic is no respecter of status or income, and many organisations will now be much more acutely aware of how exposed their business might be to the loss of employees whose role is vital to the on-going success of an organisation. Howden would therefore strongly encourage every employer to urgently review their key-person protection cover with this in mind.

Herbert concluded: “We believe that these three simple steps will help employees return to the workplace with the minimum of stress and the maximum of support, whilst also helping businesses by maximising the productivity of every worker. Many of the tools we have highlighted are already available to employers as part of their wider Employee Benefits offerings, and some others can be added quickly, with little additional administration, and at relatively low cost too. We would strongly encourage HR professionals to include these three important steps in their return to work plans.”

Please visit Howden’s new coronavirus hub for the latest information regarding COVID-19 & Employee Benefits provision.