From education to employment

Returning to the workplace after Covid-19


A new digital toolkit produced by the Institute for Employment Studies (@EmploymtStudies) is designed to help organisations, HR and line managers carefully consider the steps involved to ensure a smooth transition for employees living with overweight and obesity to return to workplaces, post-pandemic.

The research is the latest output of the PURPOSE programme (Promoting Understanding and Research into Productivity, Obesity Stigma and Employment). The programme, funded by Novo Nordisk, focusses on improving national productivity levels via better employment and labour market outcomes for those living with overweight or obesity.

With government guidance no longer instructing people to work from home, employers have a duty to protect and safeguard their staff as they return to the workplace. What has become evident throughout the Covid-19 pandemic is that some employees with long-term health issues, including people living with obesity and related health conditions, may have greater risks of severe Covid-19 related outcomes if they became ill with the virus.

These employees may also have had limited or delayed access to any treatment they need throughout the pandemic, and so may have additional anxieties about returning to the workplace. It is important that these concerns are handled in a sensitive and non-discriminatory manner by employers. Ensuring that this return to workplace plan is managed successfully will be important for both employee trust and engagement and for positive organisational outcomes.

The toolkit highlights the legal responsibilities that employers have for providing a safe workplace, as well as detailing a six-step practical plan which aims to understand both organisational and employee needs as workplaces begin to plan for the future. The toolkit details the following key factors to be considered regarding employees living with overweight and obesity, when making the decision to open-up the workplace.

  • Planning: Includes identifying stakeholders and presenting specific questions for senior management, HR, line managers and employees to consider.   
  • Risk assessments: A summary of the Health and Safety Executive risk assessment guide in addition to questions to consider when employers are specifically engaging with staff living with overweight and obesity.
  • Employee consultation:  Employers have a duty of care to consult with their employees about health and safety issues in the workplace. This section provides a range of questions and examples for an anonymous employee questionnaire, in addition to further issues to consider.
  • Return to workplace conversations: For employees living with obesity (who also may have associated health conditions), there is a risk of increased anxiety around returning to the workplace. This section guides line managers through sensitive conversations with advice and question primers, enabling an individualised approach when discussing returning to the workplace with their staff.
  • Opening up: When the time comes for employees to return to the workplace, they will want to be assured that all relevant practices have been undertaken in the workplace to protect both their safety and wellbeing. This section provides a detailed checklist of actions that employers should consider before re-opening the workplace.
  • Review of actions: Once the workplace has been re-opened it is important that policies and practices continue to be reviewed and updated, making sure that the measures are being safely implemented but also that they are not discriminatory or stigmatising to any employee groups.

Lead author Dr Zofia Bajorek said: “Research throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that people living with obesity may have worse outcomes if they contract the virus, and so employees with obesity may have specific anxieties and concerns about returning to work. 

“This toolkit has been designed for employers and employees to think about and implement the specific considerations that should be made for employees living with obesity to ensure that their health and wellbeing is maintained in this transition back to the workplace.”

The returning to the workplace toolkit is available to download here. All available PURPOSE reports, webinars and blogs are available as a research collection here.

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