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Make the end of lockdown more inclusive

By Deirdre Golden

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The UK comes out of lockdown

The easing of the restrictions placed on people over the past 16 months due to the Covid pandemic is receiving mixed responses, many are welcoming the resumption of ‘normal life’, but there are also many  who fear it. Particularly the elderly and the vulnerable who are now feeling more exposed. The last 16 months has changed things for people in all parts of society, its impact has deepened the existing social and economic divide, evidenced by increases in poverty and the impact of interrupted schooling, social isolation and fall- out from a stalled economy, particularly on those who worked in the gig economy.  A survey by the Legatum Institute estimates that almost 700,000 people in the UK, including 120,000 children, have been plunged into poverty.

What has become clear is that the impact is pretty much inclusive of all groups in society.

The impact on different societal groups

Research shows that during the lockdowns women have undertaken more childcare, home schooling and domestic chores than men.  A Women In The Workplace study by McKinsey found that women were more than three times as likely to meet the majority of the demands for housework and care-giving than men during the pandemic.

Women’s jobs have been more affected than men’s due to the increased demands on their time as well as the impact on the sectors that they work in, most notably in the retail and hospitality sector (where traditionally, part-time work has been more readily available). 

The advent of hybrid working, whilst welcome, also has implications for women in terms of their visibly in the workplace, potential access to opportunities and career development (out of sight, out of mind).

Most importantly, the epidemic has effected people’s social connectedness, particularly for the elderly and the young and potentially affecting trust in people and institutions, resulting in heightened stress and anxiety. The impact on both physical health (those who suffer chronic illnesses and who have been unable to access treatment) and the ravages of mental health is well documented.  Loneliness has increased, particularly among single people, with 87% reporting feeling more alone since March 2020.

Education for the young has likewise suffered and a British Science Association poll revealed the top fear amongst young people (14-18 year old) is the impact of Covid 19 on their education, exams and qualifications, with 81% being very or somewhat concerned.

These challenges are deep and systemic and require public policy intervention, but employers can also play their part in the recovery process of their employees through their commitment to inclusion.

What should employers do?

Many people over the period have felt vulnerable and may be very anxious about physically returning to the workplace.  Some may be anxious about travelling on public transport, some may just be fearful about leaving their home which can trigger agoraphobia.

Return to work presents a challenge for employers needing to balance a safe environment for employees and clients, and respect individual preferences around vaccination? To insist on vaccination is to exclude people who for personal, health (keeping in mind people with disabilities) or cultural reasons do not want to take the vaccine. Where virtual working is involved, this may be less of an issue, but for many sectors this will not work.

Employers need to decide whether to encourage vaccination in the workforce rather than mandate it.  Alternatively they could consider accepting a percentage of unvaccinated workers, aiming for a ‘herd immunity’ approach. But whatever approach is taken, it must be done sensitively and with respect to the individual, otherwise it undermines the principles of inclusion. 

Organisation values of respect and inclusion need to be front and centre of employees return to work and consistent messaging, widely communicated, is key.

Employers also need to be alert to potential incidents of division, exclusion or victimization, and provide accessible support and remedy, these could include: 

  • Access to a confidential employee helpline;
  • Appointing workplace buddies to act as a trusted first point of contact for an employee to speak to, in the manner of mental health buddies; and,
  • For more serious issues the HR department. Managers are also important in helping spot issues of this kind, but they cannot be the only source of support, because not everyone feels they can speak to their manager, particularly if they are part of the problem.

Inclusion is never more important than it is now.

Diversity is the reality, Inclusion is a choice.

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