How to reassure construction staff returning to work

As construction workers return to work after furlough, Randstad’s Adrian Smith highlights the importance of a proper onboarding process to safeguard employees’ wellbeing.

Almost half (45%) of furloughed construction workers are anxious about their return to work. Those are the findings from Randstad’s latest UK employee welfare audit, based on a poll of 8,000 employees - including 1,400 construction workers.

It’s a worrying statistic. And is there anything that employers can do about it? Well, our study highlighted the relationship between post-furlough anxiety and the failure to offer best practice HR during the furlough period. Only 36% of those construction workers who had weekly check-ins with their organisations said they were nervous on their returning to work, compared to 46% who have bimonthly check-ins or 67% who had no check-ins at all.

Check-ins take time.  But the more that staff communicate, the better they work together - accomplishing goals, developing skills, and giving and receiving feedback. While furlough has changed the purpose of the check-in somewhat, the importance of keeping the lines of communication open remains undiminished. While check-ins should appear relatively casual to employees, even in these strange times, managers need to follow a loose structure to ensure the time is used wisely, including preparation and taking notes.

Once they get back to the workplace good HR can, again, make all the difference. Only 18% of those who had returned from furlough and classified their onboarding experience as “very good” were anxious.  In contrast, of those construction workers who had either no onboarding or an experience they regarded as either “poor” or “very poor”, 92% were anxious. It’s a critical part of the process.

Some industries are diligently onboarding furloughed staff returning to work - while others have failed to embrace it. While 34% of furloughed employees across the UK receive either no or very poor onboarding on their return to work, this rose to 38% of employees in construction.

That’s concerning.  Not only do construction workers deserve as much attention as anyone else, but the number was also much lower in other industries (including rail where only 17% said they had no or very poor onboarding).  So, this is not about working on site; this is about the attitude of employers.  While construction once rejoiced in a reputation for being quite old-fashioned, I thought we’d kicked the days of sub-standard HR in the industry into the long grass.

Post-pandemic onboarding might include - welcoming them back / meetings with management; making sure returning staff are introduced to new colleagues; updating them with any new processes that they will need to learn; sessions on the new sorts of behaviours they will be required to undertake to function effectively within the organisation post-pandemic; and provisioning of any new employee tools. It’s not rocket science - but it counts.  This makes it all the odder that some organisations are making such a hash of it - or not bothering at all.

Normally, the onboarding process would be reserved for introducing newly hired employees into an organisation. But these aren’t normal times and workers who have been furloughed for a year will benefit from some help integrating back into the wider company. It might be arduous for some teams who are spread pretty thin but while standard onboarding might be expected to last for a couple of weeks to be effective, post-furlough onboarding is much shorter. Done properly, it will help employees feel more confident and competent when they get back on the job. It's about investing the time to protect wellbeing and to ensure a productive returning workforce.

Randstad also asked construction workers what would improve their wellbeing. The most popular solution chosen by employees was training about mental health and resilience - with 55% of construction workers favouring this option. Stress reduction workshops were also popular (50%).  

Less favoured were the appointment of workplace wellbeing champions (44%) and mindfulness training (43%).  But the least popular solution to the problem of workplace anxiety was meditation sessions (39%).  So, while employers might be tempted to roll out the yoga mats in an effort to improve employee wellbeing, remember your employees reckon the industry has already reached peak cobra pose.

Adrian Smith is the senior director of operations at the recruitment agency Randstad UK.