People’s trust in their employer’s response to COVID-19 will shape their attitudes to returning to the workplace, Professor Stephen Wood writes.
Stay at home wherever possible is a central plank of the UK (and other) government’s policy to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. There are now signs this is beginning to be tempered as workers are encouraged to return to work if they cannot work at home and if their employer can make their environment safe. Aside from fears of getting the virus, there are mounting fears of redundancy and increasing job insecurity. On the one hand, people may not return to work if they perceive their workplace to be unsafe, on the other hand, they may return to work for fear of losing their job and income insecurity, even if they perceive health and safety risks, either in the workplace or when travelling to work. The first option is akin to going absent when stressed or dissatisfied with the workplace. The second is akin to presenteeism, people attending work when ill. Both apply to people working at home. Anxiety about the epidemic or aspects of their work or employment relation may mean employees reduce their effort or time spent working, or alternatively anxiety about their work and how their employer is treating them – or will treat them in the future – may lead them to work, even excessively, when unwell or unduly stressed.
My research on the effects of the 2008 financial crisis and austerity, based on the Government’s Workplace Employment Relations survey, suggest that both these reactions may occur. The actions taken by employees – wage cuts, work restructuring and freezes on recruitment or training – increased job insecurity. Presenteeism in workplaces increased as a consequence as employees wished to appear committed to their jobs. Crucially, however, distrust in management also increased. The research showed that the actions taken by this increased distrust in management had two different effects. If it led to anxiety it led to presenteeism, as absence fell even though employees were stressed. The distrust meant employees were anxious about how, for example, managers would apply absenteeism rules or arbitrarily select redundants. However, the increased distrust also had a direct effect on absenteeism, which was to increase it. This is a kind of retaliatory action by employees, a more voluntary withdrawal from work.
On the basis of this experience of the last recession we might expect these dual processes to be reproduced. Job insecurity and anxiety about whether management can be trusted will induce workers to go back to work and increase presenteeism, attending when anxious or unwell. In contrast those who distrust their management regardless of whether this makes them anxious are less likely to return to work. If they can work at home, they may reduce their output.
Yet other homeworkers may also be working harder than normal, and when stressed or unwell. The reliance on digital communication and the lack of the presence of their boss may be fuelling anxiety about how management is perceiving and monitoring their work. This may in turn be increasing distrust of management, setting off a spiral of anxiety and distrust.
Over the economy the effects of recessionary actions on absenteeism following the 2018 financial crash may have been neutral as the processes that lead to increases and decreases in absenteeism cancel each other out. Nonetheless, the effects that lead to reductions in absenteeism may have been detrimental to employees’ health. This time round it is not so obvious that the effects will be neutral. Presenteeism may become to dominate, in the workplace or at home, and the health consequences are likely to be more devastating.
It is vital then that managers attend to providing a safe environment for workers, and crucially that they are perceived to be trusted to being doing this and to maintaining it in the future. Trust in management and not just in the government is crucial. Achieving this involves, as in the CIPD guides for managing homeworking, their discouraging presenteeism, as well as their encouraging identification of mental health problems and the stressors behind these. The danger in sending out messages about how the organization is responding to the pandemic that are prefaced with a policy of we are trying to maintain or get back to business-as-near usual as possible is that such messages amplify uncertainty.
The study of the last recession’s effect is reported in: S. Wood, G. Michaelides, and C. Ogbonnaya (2020) Recessionary actions and absence: A workplace-level study, Human Resource Management. Online Version https://doi.org/DOI: 10.1002/hrm.22008
It uses data collected after the financial crisis of 2008–9 and when the government’s austerity measures were first implemented; it is drawn from the latest of Britain’s Workplace Employment Relations Survey conducted in 2011–12.
Professor Stephen Wood is one of the co-authors of the book from the WERS research team’s analysis of the survey: B. van Wanrooy, H. Bewley, A. Bryson, J. Forth, S. Freeth, L. Stokes and S. Wood, Employment Relations in the Shadow of the Recession, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.