Feeling our way on the road to recovery

6th August 2020 Posted by

When going back to work after a summer holiday, maternity leave or being off sick, it’s not unusual to have mixed feelings. After months of lockdown amid a pandemic that has turned lives upside down, those feelings can run to new extremes.

Some of our people have been ‘virtually’ hammering the office door to be allowed back in so they can pick up their work routine again. Others are hesitant and harbour various concerns. This group includes not just those who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus due to underlying health conditions or living with a family member at higher risk. Each individual’s feelings about returning to work reflects their own personal circumstances. We recognise there is a wide range of sentiment and anxiety that we need to understand. The support we provide and how we manage our people has to be sensitive to that.

As governments have found, imposing the lockdown was the ‘easy’ bit. Lifting it and managing the transition to economic recovery is an immense challenge. And so it is for employers. The work and planning involved in preparing for the phased return of our employees has been thought out thoroughly by our UK Board. It has also demanded great commitment and close coordination of our HR, Health & Safety, and Facilities management teams.

Desks have been removed or relocated to allow social distancing in offices. Operating procedures at each location have been reviewed and revised, with help from local site and operations managers. Centrally, our procurement specialists have secured a generous stock of sanitisers and other necessities to facilitate good hygiene.

As well as following Public Health England advice, we have helped develop national guidance on ‘COVID -19 and Waste Management Activities’ through WISH (the Waste Industry Safety & Health Forum).

We are adopting reorientation days to help ease the transition back to the workplace for just a day a week or so a week in August whilst our Project Recovery Team engages with our people and managers to think through our future ways of working.

While implementing physical measures, we have also put in place a comprehensive programme of support for our employees and their wellbeing in preparation for their return.

In previous blogs I’ve outlined the regular webinars we’ve been running through the lockdown as part of our Wellness for All programme. The latest webinars focusing on the return to work are an extension of that.

We organised three Returning to the Workplace webinars tailored to our different location types: for our operational sites and regional offices, our shared services centre in Weston-super-Mare, and the SUEZ HQ in Maidenhead.

With H&S and Facilities colleagues, I explained the changes we’ve made and the rules we’re following to make each workplace ‘COVID-19 secure’. We shared videos showing a ‘walk through’ of their revamped workplace so people know what to expect. Just as important, I outlined the comprehensive package of support available to any employee who needs it.

So that we can understand any concerns an individual may have, our managers will speak with every employee in their team before they return for their orientation days. As well as identifying any support they need, managers will talk through what the first day back will be like. They will arrange a re-induction, where appropriate, to refresh safety awareness and have a meeting with them on their day in the workplace which will focus on their health, safety and wellbeing as well as any work handover or prioritisation.

Everyone at SUEZ can access advice and counselling – by telephone or online – through our Employee Assistance Programme. The number of helpline calls has increased during the pandemic. It’s good that people are utilising this service.

Some people have additional needs. We have designed three further levels of support for them:

  • Those at higher risk from COVID-19 and/or more anxious about their situation will benefit from a period of adjustment. This may involve changes to working hours for example.
  • Where someone is so anxious that it impacts their mental health – resulting in a clinical diagnosis of anxiety disorder, for example – we will tailor enhanced support to facilitate their wellbeing.
  • We are also taking a proactive approach to mental wellbeing support for those employees known to have had challenges with their mental health previously.

With really good risk assessment processes, based on HSE guidance, we are confident managers and their team members can sit down and agree mechanisms to help employees make the transition. This may involve a ‘back to work’ plan, a referral to an occupational health specialist or other form of support.

Some of the issues facing our people surfaced in the question and answer sessions during our webinars. We recently held another webinar to address these and other reintegration concerns directly.

For this, I was joined by a highly experienced mental health nurse and counsellor. Simon Richardson who has hosted several our of previous wellbeing webinars to great feedback from our people.

Simon talked us through the characteristics of the anxiety we may feel and the tools we can use to manage these feelings. A quick poll of the webinar attendees showed that 23% who attended were definitely anxious, twice that number were feeling somewhat anxious, while 27% said they were not concerned at all about returning to the workplace.

That response confirms our view that colleagues setting off on their commute to work are also on a psychological journey. While that route is different for each person, they need not feel that they’re travelling it alone. No one measure fits all. But we are as confident as we can be that our support is sufficiently comprehensive to help each employee according to their needs.

The other pointer from that quick poll is heartening. More than a quarter were unworried about getting back to work, yet they were taking part in the webinar to better understand the concerns that their colleagues might have.  In our previous webinars – and all our messaging from the CEO down to local managers – we have not just stressed the need to follow the rules to keep each other safe. We have also urged people to be respectful and kind towards their colleagues who may be feeling very differently about things. Let’s not call it the ‘new normal’ – but instead the next chapter in our SUEZ journey; we cannot change the fact that we are living through a pandemic but we can write our own way through it.

Our only certainty is that we must learn new ways of working together that protect our lives and our livelihoods, putting our business on a secure and sustainable footing for the wider economic recovery.


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