A return to “hybrid working”? – What would this mean for staff wellbeing?

Blog | Employment
Published: 2nd February 2022
Area: Employment

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On 26 January, the so-called “Plan B” COVID restrictions came to an end in England.

The Government had previously re-introduced a number of measures to tackle the outbreak of the COVID-19 Omicron variant on 8 December 2021. In England, this was referred to by the Government as “Plan B” and meant a return to the compulsory wearing of face coverings in public places, and working from home, wherever possible.

Millions of office-based employees across England have therefore been back to working full-time from their home offices, kitchen tables, and garden sheds.

Although this may have been an easy and desirable transition for some, there has also been an increase in the number of employees reporting feelings of stress and loneliness when working from home, typically attributed to missing out on the in-person, human interactions associated with office working.

Most employers will have made allowances for staff to attend the office on the occasions when their required tasks made it unavoidable. However, some large employers, such as accounting giant PWC and city law firm Slaughter & May, went further and added “mental health needs” as an acceptable reason for going into the office, even if the employee’s tasks did not strictly necessitate it. This acknowledges the potential benefit to an employee’s wellbeing of being allowed to attend the workplace, particularly if, in doing so, they are able to meet and interact with clients, colleagues or managers.

Whether the latest announcement will mean a sudden surge of staff returning to work full-time in the office is uncertain but seems unlikely. It is more likely that many staff will continue to work partly from home and partly from the office (i.e. hybrid working), as was the case after the previous relaxing of restrictions. In some cases, staff may even continue to work from home much, if not all, of the time.

This is borne out by polling, which has shown a lack of appetite among office workers to return to work in the office 100% of the time, and a desire from both employers and employees for a balanced blend of home and office-based work. Shakespeare Martineau, for example, has joined this trend with its ‘empowered working’ model.

Some international companies such as Twitter and Spotify have implemented “work from home, forever” and “work from anywhere” policies, respectively. Neither company envisages closing all of their offices permanently but will re-shape their use from a place of everyday deskwork to more collaborative workspaces.

So, the impact on mental health of periods of working from home, or away from the workplace, will remain a live issue.

In the UK, from an employment law perspective, it remains important that employers consider both their office and employees’ home working environments when considering their health and safety duties towards staff. Any home working plan and risk assessment should consider both mental and physical wellbeing when working from home, and each employee’s needs should be taken into account.

When staff are working from home, employers should be issuing specific and tailored advice to look after employees’ safety and wellbeing. This might include encouraging staff to keep in contact with managers and colleagues, to keep a routine that separates work and personal life, and to take regular breaks that involve stepping away from desks and moving around.

Employers should also be mindful of the potential for an employee who is struggling with their mental health to be deemed disabled under the Equality Act 2010. The general litmus test is if the mental illness has a substantial and long-lasting impact on their ability to do day-to-day tasks.  If an employer suspects this may apply to one of their employees, they should consider obtaining a report from an occupational health provider. Employers are required to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees, and this is best done in open consultation with the employee in question, supported by any relevant Occupational Health report or medical documents.

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Robin has experience in employment tribunal litigation and ACAS conciliation, acting for both employers and individuals. Robin also advises on non-contentious employment matters including IR35, TUPE, GDPR, contracts, and more.

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