Supporting staff to return to the workplace

COVID-19 health, safety and wellbeing

As we continue living and working through the pandemic, staff are moving in and out of the workplace repeatedly, either due to a period of sickness absence, self-isolation, working from home or, following a period of shielding. This guidance outlines the organisational considerations when planning for staff to return, tips for managers and signposts to useful resources. 

Employers should follow the latest government guidance of 22 February 2021, to enable staff to work from home where possible. 

Local lockdowns and restrictions – 5 January

From 5 January 2021 the country entered a national lockdown. Employers are instructed to follow the new government guidance and support people to work from home where possible. 

Employers are instructed to follow the updated guidance on protecting people who are clinically extremely vulnerable from COVID-19.

Where clinically extremely vulnerable staff are required to shield and are unable to work from home, employers should follow the latest NHS Staff Council guidance on pay and read the frequently asked questions around pay for staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government has instructed that, where possible, staff should work from home. However, where people cannot work from home the below guidance may be useful for future workforce planning and assist with a safe phased return to the workplace.

Contact isolation period - 22 December

From 14 December, the number of days that people must self-isolate if they have been in contact with a person with COVID-19, has reduced from 14 days to 10 days as per updated government guidance.

The legal requirement of a 10-day contact isolation period applies to hospital staff and care home staff.

A recommended precautionary 14-day contact isolation period applies to care home residents and hospital patients due to the increased vulnerability to serious COVID-19 illness. The precautionary 14-day contact isolation period does not apply to care home or hospital staff contacts who should follow the legal requirement to isolate for 10 days.

Employers should have conversations with those staff at higher risk, particularly clinically extremely vulnerable staff, in their risk assessments and seek advice from occupational health when supporting staff to return to the workplace

Organisational considerations – planning for staff to return to the workplace

Is it essential? 

Organisations should consider which roles, tasks and functions can continue to be supported by remote working in the long-term and follow our guidance on enabling and supporting staff to work from home. To develop a plan for essential staff to return to work, organisations should take a collaborative approach, working with stakeholders such as:
  • trade union representatives
  • health and safety 
  • occupational health
  • human resources 
  • wellbeing teams 
  • staff networks
  • communications
  • facilities and estates. 

Is it sufficiently safe? 

Where staff need to return to the workplace to fulfil their role, they should only be invited back when it is sufficiently safe for them as determined by government guidance and an individual risk assessment. The current government guidance requires that staff continue to work from home where possible, and for 'clinically extremely vulnerable staff' to continue to shield following updated government national guidance

The level of risk associated with returning to the workplace is individual to each staff member’s personal risk factors and their specific work environment. Many people who are shielding are disabled and as such employers have a duty to implement reasonable adjustments in line with the Equality Act 2010. Adjustments should be considered as part of the risk for all staff to enable them to safely return to the workplace. Examples of adjustments which could be considered include:
  • Phased returns – this could be a 'traditional' phased return where an individual builds up to working their contractual hours over a period of months, or where the staff member works some days from home and some from the workplace, to build up stamina. 
  • Redeploying staff to work in a lower risk area.
  • Enabling staff to continue working from home.
  • Adapting ways of working – for example, minimising contact with patients or other staff members.

To minimise workplace risks in clinical environments, organisations should continue to follow PHE guidance and for office-based environments should follow the government guidance on making workplaces safe

Organisations should also carry out a risk assessment of the working environment. Organisations can reduce the workplace risks for their staff by considering the following:

  • Ensuring all staff have awareness of the latest infection control measures and PPE guidance and adhere to these.
  • Ensuring all staff have access to PPE, including following government guidance on face coverings for all staff in hospitals.
  • Taking a 'cohorting' or 'bubble' approach such as organising shift patterns so the same staff work together each shift, as far as is practicable, to reduce the number of people interacting. 
  • Adapting shift patterns to help staff avoid peak times on public transport. 
  • Social distancing.
  • Providing additional hand washing facilities and hand sanitiser. 
  • More frequent cleaning of all areas, including non-clinical areas and staff rooms.
  • Providing additional facilities for staff who walk or cycle to work, for example, bike racks, showers and changing facilities.

Some team members will have health concerns that they may not wish to discuss with their manager. In this situation, a review by the organisation’s occupational health team or another relevant person may be appropriate.    

How will staff be supported?

Staff may be anxious about returning to the workplace after a period of time away, and may require additional support from their organisation or manager. Prioritising the physical and mental health of our workforce is essential to ensure they can continue to provide NHS services in the long-term.
Organisations may want to consider the wellbeing support implemented throughout COVID-19 and identify those interventions which should continue, to support staff returning to work and the wider workforce.

These are suggested support mechanisms that organisations could consider for different staff groups.

For individuals: 

For managers:

For teams and groups:

  • staff networks
  • Schwartz rounds
  • support groups – such as for bereavement, carers, working parents
  • organisation development (OD) support within organisations.

For more guidance on developing a robust health and wellbeing strategy for your organisation, read our health and wellbeing web pages.

Guidance for healthcare professionals: returning to work and long-COVID – Added March 2021

The Faculty of Occupational Medicine has developed guidance aimed at healthcare professionals to assist them in facilitating the return to work of staff members who were unable to work due to long-COVID. The guidance is aimed at managers and employers to assist employees with long-COVID to return to work, and includes a set of practical steps for healthcare professionals, a state of fitness for work and supplementary policy and guidance documents. 

Tips for managers – supporting staff to return to the workplace

  • Make contact with members of staff who are out of the workplace as soon as possible. This will enable early risk assessment and return to work discussions to take place. Managers should then have time to implement any changes or adjustments, seek additional advice/guidance on specific issues and to give individuals time to prepare to return. 

  • Carry out a risk assessment for all staff returning to the workplace, taking into account individual circumstances and working with occupational health teams to make reasonable adjustments. Where a staff member returning is a new or expectant mother, managers should also ensure they follow the HSE risk assessment guidance.

  • Hold a structured return-to-work discussion with each staff member, in a sensitive manner, in order to: 

    - Understand how your staff members are feeling about returning to the workplace and consider how you can support them.

    - Thank them for their contributions to work during the pandemic, or acknowledge that they may be feeling guilty for not being able to work in the same way as their colleagues.

    - Identify any signs of distress or mental ill health which need further professional input or specific support. 

    - Consider factors outside of work which may affect someone returning to work, and encourage them to consider any interim adjustments or changes they may need to make. For example, do they have childcare or caring responsibilities. 

    - Identify any additional training or clinical supervision needed to support them to return. 

    - Signpost staff to the internal support available for their health and wellbeing, as well as the national support available. 

    - Update them on changes to the team and organisation. There may have been a lot of changes in ways of working, the physical work environment, and team roles so make sure you update each team member and re-induct them as they come back into the workplace.

  • Proactively check-in with any staff member who doesn’t turn up for a planned shift to identify if they are experiencing any issues or barriers, signpost them to local and national support.

  • Regularly check-in on staff members in 1:1s and/or supervision meetings. Individual circumstances might change rapidly and they may need different support over time, so it’s important to continue to focus on the wellbeing of each person. Risk assessments should be reviewed in a change of circumstance, or if the staff member requests it.

  • Consider how you can help staff prepare to return to the workplace. For example, short visits to the workplace before they return could help staff familiarise themselves with the changes they can expect, and to experience the social distancing and infection control practices. In particular, make further considerations for staff members unable to return to work immediately due to long-COVID. For instance, ensure the individual is aware of the NHS resources to support COVID-19 recovery, tailor and adapt their work with their symptoms and ask them if they are able identify any solutions to their return-to-work obstacles. 

  • Focus on team and peer support. Staff who are returning to the workplace after a period of weeks/months may feel nervous, anxious, and guilty. Equally, staff who have been in the workplace may feel resentment towards those shielded staff or those working from home. Managers and team leaders can help different staff members understand each others perspectives or seek support from OD functions to address any issues.

  • Consider what peer support staff members might need. For example, could staff be paired up into buddies, where a returning staff member is paired with someone who has been in the workplace for longer. 

What are NHS trusts doing?

Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust made regular phone calls to check on staff who were shielding and to discuss their wellbeing. This also gave the trust an opportunity to collect stories of how different people experienced lockdown.

Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust completed risked assessments for all members of staff who are shielding to be able to support them to return to the workplace. The trust has also held virtual coffee mornings to encourage staff to stay connected.

Homerton University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust developed guidance for individuals and guidance for line managers to help them manage returning to the workplace. 

Hounslow and Richmond Community Healthcare NHS Trust worked with its learning and development team to collect personal stories from staff who are shielding, and from staff in the workplace, so that both groups could understand different experiences and perspectives.

Kettering General Hospital NHS Foundation Trust created:

  • A buddy system. This is where a member of staff that has been onsite during the pandemic can help someone who has been shielding with with anything related to what happened during the first peak. 

  • Walk with me videos. Managers recorded short videos to show shielding staff what their relevant workplace/area/ward/department now looks like. As many changes have taken place and work areas bear no resemblance to what they were before COVID-19, this may help alleviate any anxieties, so staff can see and prepare for the changes on their return.

  • The trust has asked shielders to film a short clip explaining what the pandemic has been like from their point of view. Many shielders missed their teams during the pandemic and wanted to return to the workplace but had to follow regulations. This approach promotes understanding and ensures that shielders' voices are heard. 

Northumbria Healthcare NHS Trust created a closed social network group for shielding staff and set up key words that would flag if any members of staff needed any extra support. The trust has been hosting virtual tea breaks with the chief executive and director of human resources so staff can ask questions before returning to the workplace.

Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust conducted a skills audit for staff, which enabled them to provide support for them to continue to work from home.


Resources to support organisations

Going for Growth – an outline NHS staff recovery plan post Covid-19 
Society of Occupational Medicine – Returning to the workplace after the Covid-19 lockdown: A toolkit 
Society of Occupational Medicine – Covid-19 return to work guide: for health professionals advising patients and employers
Charted Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors – Creating a safe workplace during Covid-19
CIPD FAQ on returning to the workplace
Shielding and returning to work – NHS England and NHS Improvement guidance for individuals and teams 

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