Mental Impact on Returning Workers

Adapting your organisation to return to work after Coronavirus

When adapting your workplaces to accommodate the changes required due to Covid-19, the area where this will have the greatest impact is the people and the culture of your organisation.

Although Covid-19 has had devastating effects worldwide, it may lead to safer, healthier ways of working. Social distancing, for instance, could see training evolve into new, ‘virtual’ environments better aligned with modern-day teaching, learning and continuous assessment and professional development.

Attitudes, beliefs and behaviours may also improve as workers become more conscious of risks, gaining ‘risk intelligence’ and taking extra precautions to stay safe.

Pandemics are more than just tragedies of sickness and death. Mass-scale threats such as Covid-19 and the uncertainty and fear that accompanies them can lead to new behaviours and beliefs. Culturally, organisations should be prepared for a shift.

Isolation may have caused re-integration issues; remote working will force a push and demand for further remote working. Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, the approach of a large proportion of workers globally could be described as ‘getting the job done at all costs’. This term implies they were prepared to risk their own health and safety in order to complete certain tasks. Covid-19 might alter workers’ casual safety behaviours, becoming accustomed to taking more precautions with their health due to the outbreak of Covid-19.

  • Media and official public health messaging encouraging everybody to ‘stay safe’ and ‘protect themselves’, so this may have an influence on workers’ attitudes.
  • Workers worried about an increased chance of infection at the workplace.
  • Workers more aware of hazards which could transfer from viral risk to everyday workplace situations.

All this creates an opportunity for businesses to address culture and a platform for a fresh start.


Workers attitudes towards certain issues may change especially towards illness and contagious disease. With a more cautious workforce, workers may choose to take more days off due to fear or misconceptions about viruses.

This may see a rise in sickness and absences, especially in the short term. Organisations may need to account for a steep rise in absence, certainly for the first few months following returns after Covid-19. With the safety of workforces becoming a higher priority for most organisations, a cautious, vigilant, risk-aware workforce should benefit from the long-term safety culture of all organisations as they may be less willing to take risks in all situations, avoiding the direct and indirect costs accidents and occupational diseases impose.

Behaviours change as attitudes and beliefs change:

  • Meetings may be conducted remotely more often, as opposed to large group meetings.
  • Social distancing and personal space is already an issue, especially for workers in large factories.
  • Some may be reluctant to interact socially with others, therefore causing issues around the productivity, teamwork and all-round functionality of an organisation.
  • Workers may feel inclined to clean down any work equipment they are using before use, which may cause delays when starting up/ shutting down.
  • There may be a call for extra PPE (personal protective equipment) as workers look to ensure the safety of themselves and others around them. Seeing workers request PPE would see a huge behavioural shift in some organisations as, before Covid-19, many organisations may have experienced workers’ reluctance to wear PPE.
  • Safeguards – which should always be determined by a risk assessment and appropriate control processes – need to be in place for returning workers to ensure their workplaces limit the opportunity of further viral spread.

Each nation and region will have different government guidelines and protocols for organisations to meet to ensure worker safety when returning to work.

Phased returns – This minimises the numbers and the chances of viruses spreading. Some organisations have chosen to split numbers into various shifts to cover production requirements. Phased returns will also help to ease workers back into work.

Social distancing – Adhering to local government guidelines (eg, 2 metres in the UK) helps contain the spread of the virus but will also assist in easing worker fears around contracting the virus.

Monitoring and detection technologies – Some countries are using temperature scanners at the entrance of workplaces to scan workers before coming in to work, any worker with an abnormal reading will be sent away. One issue with temperature scanning is that asymptomatic workers may not be traced by a temperature scanner and therefore are at risk of spreading the virus.

Screens/ dividers and protectors are being used on production lines, supermarket checkouts to canteens to stop the spread of any virus. The main purpose of the screen is to catch any airborne contaminant passing from worker to worker or customer/ consumer to worker

Personal protective equipment (PPE) – Organisations may see a significant rise in the demand for PPE, needing to be sensitive to workers’ needs following such a frightening and disruptive period. Risk assessments should establish what controls can be used prior to using PPE, if PPE is required the risk assessment should determine what PPE is necessary for the specific job/ task. Identifying what PPE is required for roles/ tasks will enable organisations to distribute the appropriate equipment to workers


Training will need to adapt for the immediate return to work, and control measures will need to be adhered to until a reliable vaccine is found. This requires a need to adapt and update training.

Adapting or creating new policies, procedures and training/ re-training will reassure workers that organisations have identified new and emerging risks from Covid-19 and are protecting them, as best they can. Training rooms can no longer be packed full to observe the standard PowerPoint slides, it will have to be adapted to satisfy COVID-19 measures and restrictions:

Training numbers will have to be reduced to accommodate half the capacity of a room or moving to virtual training online.

Temporary labour will also need to be considered as a consequence of sickness and absence. With more contracted workers taking time off due to the extra precautions and anxiety coronavirus has caused, organisations may need to employ temporary labour to cover to sustain production or working capacity.

Health and Wellbeing

Organisations should expect to see a rise, certainly in the immediate term, of sickness and absence – in some cases due to self-isolation. Should organisations have Key Performance Indicators for sickness and absence, they should account for such potential rises.

Additional support may be required to help Occupational Health and Safety professionals manage risks and assess workers. More staff across organisations should be trained to risk-assess and promote safer, healthier ways of working.

Most OHS professionals will not have additional training or qualifications. Occupational health is vital when managing health issues of workers which becomes important as some returning workers may have directly suffered from Covid-19, these implications will need to be managed regularly and consistently.

Workers who have not directly suffered from Covid-19 but have indirectly suffered, whether through the loss of family members or close friends, may also need additional support and regularly assessing. Support for mental health and wellness, tackling psychosocial risks, will become more vital.

Organisations without any occupational health resource may need to plan in for the additional resource.


Business leaders and managers will be scrutinised closely for their return-to-work processes. What they say and do will be viewed critically not only by their competitors, suppliers and customers but also by their staff and their families.

It is a sensitive time and one in which very important decisions need to be made.  IOSH, with its vast experience and its network of 48,000 occupational safety and health professional worldwide, can offer business the support it needs to put in place the right systems and processes to ensure a safe and healthy return to work.  Its expertise can help establish the parameters for successful organisations in the future.