returning to work safely | COVID-19

FOMO of Furlough

FOMO (fear of missing out) - as with many new phrases used within the online community, has evolved. This has not necessarily been through choice or jest however, but prompted by COVID-19. Many of us are now starting to experience something related, but slightly different. 



‘FOGO’ (fear of going out) or ‘FOMU’ (fear of meeting up) is becoming a more and more common term since the global pandemic. During July 2020, FOGO was identified as a trending term with over 4.5k monthly social media mentions*. It’s something that people are talking about with reference to anything from agoraphobia, socialising and returning to the workplace.

The pandemic has changed the way we live, work and communicate with one another. Life under strict government measures and a sudden change to day-to-day routines can cause all kinds of emotions to surface. Emerging from weeks of strict lockdown has the potential to create serious mental health disruption, and returning to work for many remains a common concern or instigator of stress/anxiety for those that have been working from home, on leave, furlough or starting a new role in 2020. 

While some are excited to get back to work, waiting to return to life in the new normal, others are experiencing a fear of contracting the virus, a second spike, a long uncomfortable commute, unwanted interactions with certain colleagues or a sadness about the loss of things gained during lockdown. This is where FOGO or FOMU is becoming prevalent. 

There are several reasons why returning to work after lockdown may be causing FOGO, FOMO or anxiety for some employees;

Concerns around safety
Work Life balance
Social anxiety
Adapting to change

Concerns around safety.

A recent poll carried out by Bupa Health Clinics revealed that 65% of employees are anxious about returning to an office-based working environment as lockdown measures are gradually relaxed. According to the research, overcrowded office spaces were the biggest concern (46%) closely followed by people’s concerns about their ability to distance themselves from others (42%).

Upon returning to work, employees will be faced with physical distancing measures, extra hygiene processes, regular testing, and other solutions that have yet to be decided on, for the foreseeable future. It will not be the workplace environment that they are used to and different people will have different feelings about personal space, willingness to attend in-person meetings and even being within two metres of another person following a long period of isolation. Some businesses are taking measures to allow employees to voluntarily identify themselves as keen to interact, comfortable to communicate from a short distance or those who are keeping their distance. Watercooler chats and kitchen catch ups will be a thing of the past, and employers must ensure that clear signage is in place to prevent individuals who are more relaxed putting others at risk. Some employers have taken the decision to employ a covid marshall or similar to ensure that social distancing is being adhered to, employees are showing no signs of covid-related symptoms, and relevant PPE is worn. 

Better work life balance during lockdown.

Last year, research revealed that travelling to work is taking longer than ever before – with the average daily commute now stretching to almost an hour. Getting to and from work every day is taking 59 minutes on average, an increase of five minutes from a decade ago, says the TUC - the equivalent of 221 hours a year. With this huge chunk of hours now back for former commuters to play with, work life balance is on the up. With those with rigid hours of a traditional 9 - 5, they can make the transition from work life to home life at 17.01, if their workload allows. 

Our Workmonitor Covid edition report discovered that 73% of respondents are being offered increased flexibility with hours, allowing them to facilitate a better balance between work and family obligations. With this new added flexibility and more time to spend with family, engaging in home schooling and tackling personal admin, the shift back to workplace life presents a potentially daunting challenge.

The flexibility is not all good news necessarily for some, according to our Covid edition report, more than half of employers (53%) expect workers to be available outside of normal work hours as they adjust to new ways of flexible working. There are also many that are working extended hours, whether that be through choice due to the extra time earned without commuting, or accidentally due to lack of rigid start or finish times governed by workplaces.

Social anxiety.

As the nation slowly makes the transition back to work, employees will be experiencing mixed emotions about socialising with larger groups of people. With the number of social interactions drastically reduced over the past few months, the potential to become more introverted, less eager to socialise and FOGO, may become a common theme. 

Everyone will react differently - some people will enjoy getting back to a pre-lockdown form of normality, and others may feel completely overwhelmed by anxiety. It’s important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to react in this situation, and most are bound to feel unsettled at some point. 

It is very possible that social anxiety and further mental health implications will be felt by employees for many months and even years. According to the CIPD, as early as two weeks into lockdown, employees were reporting a range of health effects including negative impacts on mental health and overall well-being.

Having to adapt to a new way of working...again.

A 2009 study by Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at UCL, entitled ‘How long does it take to form a habit’, found that on average it takes 66 days for a habit to become ingrained. Having spent comfortably longer than 66 days already in lockdown under strict government guidance, it’s safe to say that the majority have adapted to a new way of working. 85% of those surveyed as part of Randstad’s workmonitor Covid report feel they have adapted to their new working situation due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The journey back to a normal working environment won’t be easy, it will take time to adjust back to a working life with social distancing measures in place, reduced staff, less business and fewer social interactions in person. 

How can employers help with fear of returning to work?

internal comms programme
virtual workspace experience
survey to employees 
training/L&D programme  
lead by example
reassurance of safety


Internal comms.

Having a strong internal communications programme in place can help employees feel more comfortable returning to work. Showing you care as an employer and are invested in keeping your employees updated with the most up-to-date and valid information will ease nerves.  

Do you have dedicated forums for specific Covid-19 advice and updates for example? Consider what messages should be company-wide or tailored to specific groups and identify what is ‘need to know’ and ‘useful to know’ to ensure you’re not overwhelming employees. 

Virtual workplace preview.

Promoting shared stories, positive examples and testimonials from those who have successfully returned to the workplace will be useful for others to see allowing them to hear and see directly what they can experience, what safety measures are in place and what the workplace looks and feels like. 

A virtual tour of the workplace is another way to provide a sneak peak of what’s to come and eliminate the element of surprise on the first day back.

Find out how employees feel.

Utilise survey tools to get honest feedback and opinions. Give employees the opportunity to reply anonymously if they wish, allowing them to be heard and improving satisfaction. There will be mixed emotions and feelings - some will be happy to be back into a semi-normal routine and working lifestyle and some will be anxious and want to continue keeping at arm's reach. Following up on feedback provided and making the changes identified accordingly will act as a great morale booster and comfort employees in knowing that their opinions matter.

Learning and development. 

With Covid-19 preventing many businesses from moving forward in terms of education, Learning and Development professionals are under increasing pressure to build a resilient, virtual learning ecosystem at speed, with the ability to educate at a distance. Fortunately research shows that 77% of workers feel equipped to deal with the new digital way of working due to Covid-19, providing L&D professionals with the ability to continue reskilling and educating the workforce. Digital and virtual learning programs were already on the rise before COVID-19 struck, and we have already seen an increase in such learning programs, which the vast majority are now keen to engage with.

It’s important to not put L&D on hold due to social distancing. Social learning sessions are beneficial - allowing teams to learn together in virtual environments. This can be particularly effective with teams seeking a sense of community after being physically apart for so long. 

Lead by example.

By encouraging senior team members and line managers to experience the workplace prior to welcoming the full workforce back will give the team confidence that their surroundings are safe and adequate measures have been taken. This also presents the opportunity for any teething problems or snags to be taken care of before the capacity of the workplace is increased.This is something that we are now recommending based on opening our first offices and are receiving positive feedback on.

Health and safety.

Health and safety protocols will need to be updated for the temporary ‘economy driven by social distancing’. Rather than reinventing the wheel, it’s worth a look at how you can build on existing best practices. It’s worth thinking about updating disciplinary policies too, as employees need to feel safe, and anyone willing to break social distancing rules or new workplace procedures implemented to prevent the spread of the virus need to be taken seriously. 

You could also consider recruiting specialist covid roles, fully dedicated to prevent the spread of the virus or change existing responsibilities to provide that extra layer of safety and security. 

*Conductor, July 2020

For more information on returning to the workplace or to recruit specialist Covid roles, speak to our experts.

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