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UK coronavirus pandemic: stop telling us to go ‘back’ to work

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Kayleigh Dray
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Many of us have been working, albeit from home, in the midst of a global pandemic. To claim otherwise is hugely disrespectful.

If you’ve even so much as glanced at social media of late, you’ll no doubt know that columnist Richard Littlejohn has penned an article headlined “one person’s working from home is another’s P45.”

The piece, understandably, caused frustration on social media, as it insists that “idle” workers are “climbing over each other to fill their faces with state-subsidised chicken and chips at Nando’s, while at the same time pretending to be too frightened to turn up for work.” 

Damning claims, it seems. Until, of course, you reach the 25th paragraph of Littlejohn’s essay, in which he attempts to breeze past the fact that he himself has been WFH for almost three decades.

“Like most people who write for a living, I’ve worked from home for the past 30-odd years, unless I’ve been broadcasting and needed to be in a studio.” 

Littlejohn’s steaming pile of hypocrisy, of course, comes just days after an unnamed government source told The Telegraph that workers need to be “alert” and that it could be “problematic” if bosses “are only seeing workers once a fortnight”.

“Suddenly the word ‘restructure’ is bandied about and people who have been working from home find themselves in the most vulnerable position,” the source added.

Or, to put it more bluntly, “go back to work or risk losing your job.”

The article, of course, sparked an almighty backlash, with Labour representatives saying it “beggars belief” that the government is “threatening people” during the coronavirus pandemic and asking them to “choose between their health and their job” as part of Boris Johnson’s drive to get workers back to the office.

“Forcing people to choose between their health and their job is unconscionable,” shadow business secretary Lucy Powell said.

“No.10 should condemn this briefing and categorically rule out any such campaign.”

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It’s little wonder, then, that the Conservative party has since backed away from suggestions that workers would be vulnerable to the sack if they continue to work from home.

And now, in a bid to explain the government’s position to Sky News, transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “What we’re saying to people is it is now safe to go back.

“Your employer should have made arrangements which are appropriate to make sure it is coronavirus-safe to work.”

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This, of course, is all well and good: workers’ safety should and must be considered. 

The thing we object to, though, is the phrase “go back to work.”

Because, as anyone who has been WFH will no doubt attest, we’ve been working really bloody hard – and in very stressful conditions – for months.

As previously reported by Stylist, the reality of WFH during a global pandemic is very different to what some might imagine. Indeed, many of us have been piling enormous pressure upon ourselves to do better. To work faster, longer, harder than ever before. To come up with ideas and solutions in silo. To push past feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty brought on by Covid-19. To pull together in these unprecedented times.

And, above all else, to prove to our managers, miles away and busily focused on their own duties, that we are 100% engaged and ready for anything. 

Despite this, Littlejohn is among many who have heaped scorn on those who are “boasting smugly about their exciting new ‘work/life’ balance and the amount of money they are saving on their railway season tickets.”

Right. Because it’s apparently now a character flaw to even entertain the possibility that a two-hour morning commute isn’t all that beneficial to our bank accounts and emotional wellbeing then, is it?

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As anyone who has been WFH will no doubt attest, we’ve been working really bloody hard – and in very stressful conditions – for months.

Of course, I understand why people are trying to drive workers out of their homes and into offices, even if they’re going about it in the worst possible way. Figures compiled for Sky News, after all, have revealed that worker footfall in Britain’s cities was just 17% of pre-lockdown levels in the first two weeks of August. 

And Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, has warned that the office workers are vital drivers of the UK economy, supporting “thousands of local firms, from dry cleaners to sandwich bars.”

That being said, though, perhaps it’s time to consider another way forward. Because, despite six out of 10 bosses in the country agreeing that cutting hours would benefit their business, the average (pre-Covid) working week for Brits remains sat at 43.6 hours, or 8 hours and 40 minutes per day – which isn’t great news, considering that longer working hours have been linked with an increased risk of strokes, heart disease, and obesity (not to mention increased risk of mental health problems brought about by associated stress).

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Throw in the fact that Sweden’s introduction of a six-hour working day boosted productivity, lowered turnover rates, reduced sick leave, and boosted the emotional wellbeing of employees, and it becomes clearer than ever that something needs to give.

And that ‘something’ is the outdated idea that work can only take place in an office. That workers need to be watched constantly lest they “start dossing”. That the ongoing recession can apparently be blamed on those who are WFH.

It’s disrespectful, quite frankly. And it needs to stop.

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If anything positive has come out of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s this: employers know now that they can 100% trust employees to get the job done. And, better still, we can trust them to get it done without having them trek into the office, rinse their bank accounts on overpriced trains and sarnies, and lose hours of their non-working day to their commutes.

With that in mind, then, let’s use this learning to do away with toxic presenteeism and transform workplace culture for the better. 

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