When COVID-19 forced the U.K. to impose its most recent lockdown, Sandra Perriot’s company was well-positioned to adapt. Perriot works as a strategy director for an advertising company that specializes in digital marketing, so the tools for successfully working remotely were already at hand. But as the long third lockdown has dragged on, even the most well-prepared employees have found it difficult.
“I know that we improved productivity out of the lockdown situation … but it probably came at the expense of other things, like mental health, co-worker relationships,” Perriot said.
The U.K. entered its third lockdown in January and now, with an efficient and ongoing vaccine rollout, some of the measures are slowly being lifted. Whether they are lifted too quickly or too slowly can have consequences for businesses as well as for the mental health of workers.
For many, there is a level of trust around the way the government is handling the vaccine rollout and lifting of the lockdown. “I think there’s an air of optimism and hope in the business world as lockdown restrictions are set to ease,” said Padma Tadi, senior associate solicitor at Irwin Mitchell in London.
However, different businesses and sectors have different perspectives on the easing of the lockdown. For businesses that depend on foot traffic, including the leisure industry and retail sector, there is a desire for the measures in place to ease as quickly as possible. “For them, this can’t come soon enough, because obviously, they have probably been the most impacted,” Tadi said.
Effects on In-Person Businesses
For Yoyo Lee, who works as a tattoo artist in London, the lockdowns have been tedious, but she is tentatively optimistic about the projected mid-April date when she will be allowed to officially reopen her business.
“Every time I reopen, there’s a lot of people who want to get tattoos. So in a way, it’s just that I have to work much harder during this time where I can open,” Lee said. “Mid-April is fine enough. If [the date is pushed to] May or June, then I think I’d be quite worried.”
She is frustrated that her business falls under a similar category as bars and restaurants, since tattooing always requires a high level of hygiene and personal protective equipment even during normal times.
“I understand bars and restaurants are closed, because it brings lots of people inside,” Lee said. “But to just put everything in the same bag, I don’t think that that’s very fair.”
Mental Health Concerns
For many workers in the U.K., the lockdown measures and how quickly or slowly they are eased doesn’t just affect their work, but also their mental health. Perriot finds that working remotely makes her anxious about the subtle signs she might be missing.
“When you are at work in real life, you can witness important business indicators, you can witness attitudes, you have body language, and that gives you information around the business. And obviously, working remotely, you don’t have that,” she said.
Working at home, where the workspace and living space are the same, also carries challenges. In terms of mental health, the fact that the lines between work and home are blurred is difficult, Perriot said.
Looking Forward as Lockdowns Ease
Moving forward, it will be important for employees and businesses to plan for flexibility, as the scheduled lifting of the lockdown is subject to change based on the COVID-19 caseload in the U.K.
“I recommend that rather than plans for reopening workplaces solely based on the timelines that the government has given, employers should build in some contingency plans,” Tadi said. “What we don’t know is whether when places start to open up again, like we saw earlier in the year, will there be suddenly a big spike again that requires the dates to be put back?
“Hopefully there seems to be reason for optimism in terms of declining numbers and the vaccine rollout. Fingers crossed, at the moment, summer is looking positive in the U.K.”
Perriot is looking forward to the lockdown easing, and eventually working at least a few days a week back in her office.
But, she noted, it’s impossible to know whether the pace of the restrictions easing is the correct one. “Is it too soon? Or too slow?” she asked. “Only time will tell.”
Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul.