Many schools and other education settings were already facing financial pressures before the arrival of COVID-19. Now a perfect storm of rising costs for infection control measures and staff cover combined with a reduction in income from other revenue streams means that leaders are increasingly looking to make difficult decisions about future staffing needs. In a climate where employees are already struggling with the personal ramifications of the pandemic, now more than ever there is a need to approach staffing reductions with careful consideration of the potential consequences for employees’ mental health.
In the midst of a redundancy handling process, it is natural to focus most attention on ensuring minimum legal requirements are met, however this doesn’t have to be at the expense of maintaining the dignity and wellbeing of those affected. If you’ve ever been made redundant, or someone close to you has, you’ll already know that the way that the redundancy was handled strongly influences the aftermath in terms of personal perceptions around wellbeing, self-esteem, resilience, job-readiness and capacity to tackle any personal and financial difficulties that arise as a result.
Public Health England’s own analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on mental health has evidenced that self-reported mental health and wellbeing has declined, most substantially in the early days of lockdown but – although there is some evidence of recovery – these have not returned to pre-pandemic levels and the further impact of new local and national restrictions is not yet known. It is in this context of heightened anxiety, social isolation and uncertainty that many employees will be losing jobs as well.
The HR team at Strictly Education have put together a podcast on how to handle the challenging conversations you may be faced with when arranging a redundancy.
If you are forward planning for staffing reductions or restructures in the coming weeks and months, here are some suggestions as to how the harmful impact on staff wellbeing can be mitigated.
1. Don’t procrastinate too long, hoping the need will go away
Getting the timing right is a balancing act. It is a natural inclination to want to protect staff from unsettling news for as long as possible, but it is important for them to know informally that financial difficulties are on the horizon even if it is too early to formulate a precise plan for staffing reductions. Positive action to avert the need for redundancies can be taken early with the knowledge and cooperation of staff, such as implementing recruitment and/or pay freezes (within the constraints of employment contracts and collective agreements), reducing hours and offering flexible working as well as terminating agency contracts and considering any interest in pursuing secondment, sabbatical or voluntary redundancy opportunities. Even if compulsory redundancies are still ultimately necessary, you have prepared the ground with staff, giving them the chance to contribute and to be forewarned that there may be tough times ahead, but also to reassure them from the outset that your overriding aim is to limit the negative repercussions through consultation and the provision of support.
2. Prepare thoroughly and consider the worst-case scenario
Formal consultation with staff and representatives should start at an early stage, even if it is still hoped that compulsory redundancies can be avoided. Allowing for statutory notice of up to 12 weeks, in addition to a consultation period and time for hearings and appeals to take place during term time, consultation will often need to start two terms in advance of any required reduction taking effect. Leaders and governors must therefore carefully plan a timetable from the outset, establishing who will be involved at each stage of the process and planning for dismissal hearings and appeals, whether or not these will ultimately be required. A crucial part of forward planning is considering what support you will be able to offer to employees. An employee’s confidence in their ability to find future work impacts on their sense of wellbeing. If you buy into an EAP, find out in advance what is available to staff facing redundancy as well as what the counselling provision is. If you don’t buy an EAP service, research other options and make sure you have a bank of information prepared to provide to staff. Consider what redeployment assistance you can offer, including whether you should plan to bring in outside support to cover CV writing and interview skills or career counselling if needed. You may be able to offer administrative or IT resources for job hunting where employees do not have ready access at home.
3. Less is never more when it comes to honest and open communication
So many employers still get it wrong when it comes to communicating bad news to employees. Once you have commenced a consultation process, it is vital that regular communication is kept up with all staff, even those not immediately affected. This is particularly important in the current circumstances which may require a mix of remote and face-to-face consultation. If there is nothing new to report let staff know this. Uncertainty and fear caused by a lack of information are far more damaging to morale and mental health than being regularly reminded of the redundancy situation.
Line managers, too, need to understand their role in providing guidance and information. Many people find it challenging to have the difficult and empathetic conversations required when people are feeling emotional and are worried about their personal circumstances. Consider whether you need to source some outside training or support for these individuals too.
4. Invest time and care into the selection process
Again, not only are there legal obligations placed upon employers to ensure that employees are fairly selected for redundancy, but it is important in securing the acceptance of individual members of staff, that the decision-making process has been transparent and robust. This includes illustrating how scoring has been arrived at and documenting this clearly. The threat of redundancy tends to be taken very personally by individuals who will often view it as an attack on their performance and contribution, affecting their confidence and their ability to move beyond mistrust and anxiety about the future. You can’t dictate how people feel but you can control the messages they are given about the basis for the redundancy need, the objectivity you have aimed for in selection and how they are still valued and will be supported, whatever the outcome.
5. Be proactive with seeking alternative employment
Apart from the legal obligation to provide suitable alternative employment where it is available, clearly the biggest way to reduce the impact of a job loss on an individual is for him or her to have secured work by the time the notice period has ended. Standalone schools and colleges may have limited options in terms of their immediate location but should take an active role in understanding what opportunities those affected wish to pursue and establishing what’s out there. For maintained schools, some local authorities operate a redeployment register which employees at risk can be placed on. It can also be worth contacting local schools to ask them to get in touch if they have specific vacancies and making sure that affected staff members have ready access to appropriate vacancy circulars and websites.
6. Watch out for vulnerable staff
All staff at risk of redundancy will inevitably find the process stressful, but for some it will be worse.
Those, for example, with a past history of experiencing mental ill-health, financial problems or employees who have many dependents are likely to find the situation even more traumatic. Make sure there are opportunities for face-to-face meetings, discuss how individuals are feeling and not just the practicalities of consultation, be aware of symptoms which may suggest that they are not coping and involve your occupational health provider if you are concerned about someone’s state of mind.
7. Don’t overlook the ‘survivors’
Often perceived as the ‘lucky ones’, those employees whose jobs are not affected or who are selected for a new post can be easily overlooked. However, the aftermath of redundancy can leave them feeling sceptical, demotivated and stressed. They may have new roles to adjust to or an increased workload. Ensure that line managers meet regularly with these individuals to provide encouragement and to listen to concerns. Continue to signpost sources of support. Make sure that you – and line managers – communicate the school’s/college’s vision and plans for the future; there needs to be a sense of direction and something positive to work towards. Ensure you are visible to staff every day and accept that it will take a while for people to adapt to their changed circumstances and, in some cases, to rebuild lost trust.
8. Remember yourself and your senior team too
No leader enjoys making staff redundant or putting them through a prolonged period of uncertainty over jobs. There are difficult and often unpopular decisions to be made and, even with the support of governors and professional associations, it can sometimes be an isolating position. Access the personal and professional support available to you, including from HR who are there to help you through, and establish a role for your senior leadership team in providing support to staff during the process as well as helping to manage the aftermath.