Supporting workers return to work after Covid-19 emergency

By Karina Nielsen, University of Sheffield

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic there have been many concerns raised about the mental health of workers due to the rapid changes to work and life. The threats to workers’ mental health are plenty. Many workers, although still in employment, have been furloughed and lack the structure to the day offered by work and do no longer have access to the social support and interactions offered by colleagues. Even if workers have not been furloughed, many changes have been introduced as many have had to work from home, using new technology and getting used to changes work practices and procedures. The opportunities for social interaction and support have been greatly reduced. Adding to the stress related to the changes in work practices and procedures, is the double role of many to look after their children and couples both working from home in environments not always built for remote working. For frontline workers in healthcare, transport and cleaners, the risk of infection is grave. All these threats to workers’ mental health emphasise the need for tools to support workers’ return to work whatever form such return may take.

The IGLOo framework

In 2018-2019, I conducted a study, together with Dr Joanna Yarker, from Affinity Health at Work, to understand how we may best support workers’ return who return after long-term sickness absence due to stress, anxiety and depression.  Our findings are relevant as we look to support employees return to the workplace, many of whom will have depleted mental health. We interviewed returned workers and line managers with experience returned workers to explore the resources employees needed to stay and thrive at work post-return. We used the IGLOo framework as our starting point. The IGLOo framework focuses on the resources within the individual (e.g. self-efficacy, job crafting abilities), group level (social support from colleagues and a collaborative working climate), leader/line manager level (a health-promoting leadership style and adjustments to work tasks), organizational level (Human Resource policies and practices, and the overarching context, such a health care and employment policies at the national level).

A guidance to support sustainable return to work

As part of the project, we developed a toolkit that provided guidance to employees themselves, their colleagues, their line manager and Human Resources at the organisational level on how to develop and implement action plans to support sustainable return to work – in other words we used the IGLOo framework as the framework for change, although focus was less on the national context as we only interviewed workers and line managers in the UK. In light of the current pandemic as workers return to work the same principles apply, we need to develop strategies at the IGLOo levels that can support people gradually returning to work while dealing with mental health issues caused by the Covid-19 situation.

A special situation in Covid-19 emergency

We have adapted the toolkit to the current situations and the challenges faced by returning workers. For employees themselves we provide guidance as to how they may organise their work to protect their mental health and for line managers we provide guidance on how to identify which work adjustments can be made to support returning workers. As with the original guidance, our Covid-19 guidance has been developed for employees, colleagues, line managers and Human Resources. This way, everyone has a clear understanding of their role and specific actions they can do to support employees stay mentally healthy at work.

IGLOo framework in the H-WORK project

In the H-WORK project we also use the IGLOo framework to develop interventions at the individual, group, leader and organizational level to promote employee wellbeing and mental health.

The guidance has been made available on the Mental Health at Work website, led by the UK charity Mind and The Royal Foundation. Please do share and use freely and let us know what you think: