Effects of COVID-19 on HR workload

HR professionals are set for 22 days’ worth of overtime in the second half of this year as redundancies spiral. The unemployment rate has already risen to 4.8 per cent, encompassing 1.62 million people. Youth unemployment is the highest it has been for decades after lockdown job losses. A record 314,000 people were made redundant between July to September.

That’s creating a vast amount of work for HR teams. While every situation is unique – and it goes without saying that  HR professionals care deeply about treating employees as individuals – a redundancy typically represents a day’s worth of work – a series of consultations plus the requisite prep over a two week period. In a poll of 85 HR professionals working in firms employing approximately 50,000 people in total, we found that every ‘simple’ redundancy typically cost HR professionals 7¼ hours of work – although it’s higher in other sectors such as industrials, manufacturing, construction and engineering, where the average case takes 9 hours.

Our research also highlighted the length of time it takes HR professionals to deal with redundancies that don’t run smoothly because, for instance, they go to tribunal – 140 hours’ work. In some cases, it might be even longer than that, where, for example, subject access requests are made, and someone has to trawl through thousands of emails.

Aren’t there grounds for optimism with the vaccine? Well, we hope so, although it is not yet clear whether or not the vaccine could protect against coronavirus infection or simply against developing symptoms once someone has been infected. The second shot is going to be up to a month after the first – so protection is delayed even in those lucky enough to receive it in the first few months. And while the 90 per cent effectiveness rate was calculated seven days after the second shot, these results are likely to change as data is collected over the longer term. We can’t rely on a magic bullet.

Currently, complicated redundancies represent around 30 per cent of the total number of cases – although, again there are differences across sectors. In Professional and Financial Services, for instance, only 20 per cent of cases are complicated while in industrials, manufacturing, construction, and engineering, the percentage is higher than average. Moreover a quarter of HR professionals say the percentage of redundancies that aren’t simple processes is rising as the pandemic tightens the labour market.

The jobless rate is bound to rise. Firms face another wave of severely diminished revenue and gaps in government support persist. Unemployment is predicted to peak at 7-8 per cent as we face an economic double-dip of unprecedented proportions. Professor Trevor Williams of Derby University says unemployment will peak at 4.4 million.

What is more, the government is fighting a losing battle against economic reality with programmes like the furlough scheme. Furlough has provided much needed support to many, but the jobs market has been put into limbo and the Government does not appear to have an exit planned. Hard choices will eventually need to be taken to help protect the public finances. When Rishi Sunak is finally forced to accept he can’t bail out the economy forever, redundancies will rise.

This will increase the workload of HR professionals yet further. While there are approximately 152,000
people that work full time in employment activities (other than recruitment) across the UK, our research suggests that only 65 per cent are likely to be involved in the redundancy process (and only 57 per cent in IT, Data Infrastructure & Telecoms).

Minimising the workload of HR

Across the UK, the extra work HR professionals will be undertaking to make these redundancies is set to create 168 hours’ worth of overtime per full time HR employee over the course of the H2 2020. This on top of already working hard to keep their employees safe, supporting their mental health during lockdown and managing social restrictions. That is going to take a savage toll on HR departments (as well as the wider “surviving” workforce). There’s a significant risk of illness and burnout taking hold of overworked, emotionally-drained HR teams. The scale of the task will leave many worrying they are unable to do the job to their own high standards – that will hurt, professionally and mentally.

HR directors who are concerned for their exhausted teams (who might not feel able to mention how much this is affecting them) can minimise workloads by making sure that redundancies are a last resort. One option is to reposition employees before they leave, by making use of redeployment solutions – retaining institutional knowledge within the firm and lowering severance costs. It’s a great feeling when you can redeploy a talented member of staff and keep them on board, rather than make them redundant – good for the individual concerned, the HR team’s morale as well as wider staff engagement.

HR teams should, of course, be clear in their communications and follow guidelines to the letter to avoid unfair dismissal cases and reduce the number of cases that go to tribunal. But sophisticated HR teams can go further by ensuring an employee has another job to go to and by making it abundantly clear the organisation is helping employees being let go to find another job – either internally or externally. Outplacement services can make all the difference, not only to those being made redundant or an organisation’s employer brand – but also to the workload of an overstretched HR department.

The Chancellor also needs to invest more heavily in helping people whose jobs are not viable to maximise their chances of getting new work. That will need to involve career coaching, job search support, smart job matching technology, and advice on relevant reskilling and upskilling needed.

Ideally, we will go further and put a 10-year, national skills plan in place so educational institutions can pivot and start providing people with the relevant skills to join the new-look labour market. If the Government acts now, it will have used the current crisis to future-proof the UK’s workforce for decades.

*The data in this article was collated using research by Risesmart, part of HR recruitment firm Randstad, which was published in November 2020.