The heavy media coverage and substantial threat of COVID-19 has understandably left some employees apprehensive about a return to the workplace. With Britain now in “Phase 3” of its phased reopening of selected sectors, employers and HR departments may have some questions on how to protect business continuity with a healthy workforce. We have compiled some key steps which employers should be taking right now in preparation to receive employees back in the workplace.
Substantial pre-coronavirus legislation and guidance protects the health and safety of employees – in essence, an employer is obligated to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees. As the world battles a global pandemic, this bottom line has taken on new meanings.
Government Guidance in light of COVID-19
The government has released industry-specific guidance for businesses. The guidance also provides 5 key steps for a COVID-secure workplace:
1. Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment in line with Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance, and share the results of that assessment with your workforce and on your website.
2. Develop cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures. This includes providing hand sanitisers and frequently disinfecting areas and objects which are commonly used.
3. Assist with home-working by ensuring employees have the right equipment and by caring for their physical and mental well-being.
4. Maintain 2m distance between individuals where possible
5. Where a 2m distance is not possible, do everything practical to managing transmission risk. This includes staggering arrival and departure times and using protective screens, amongst other potential measures. Employers should also consider expanding bike storage facilities, providing changing facilities and extra car parking space in order to help those commuting to work avoid public transport, as per government guidelines.
Communication at this time is key. Government guidance has suggested providing regular updates on the actions being taken to reduce the risk of viral exposure; confirming that all employee contact numbers and emergency contact details are on file; ensuring that managers are able to spot COVID-19 symptoms and are aware of sickness reporting and sick pay procedures. There have been various changes to rules around Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) including to extend SSP to individuals who are self-isolating. Employers with fewer than 250 employees should check whether they can get a SSP rebate under the Coronavirus Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme
Be Aware of Discrimination
Statistics suggest that certain groups with protected characteristics under the Disability Act 2010 are disproportionately affected by the outbreak. This includes female, disabled and older employees, as well as those from an ethnic minority background. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has reiterated that discrimination in the workplace may lead both to an employment tribunal claim and the associated costs, but also to reputational damage.
Accordingly, the Commission has published guidance on how discrimination may manifest in the workplace during the pandemic – for example, a manager may check in on a female colleague working from home more often than her male counterpart due to the assumption that she will be distracted with child care.
The guidance also covers the various actions which employers should be taking at this time to avoid discriminating against their employees. Again, the key takeaway here is to communicate and it is highly advised to speak with a relevant professional about developing suitable protocols to mitigate this potential issue. The commission also recommends setting up a way to record decisions and track their impact.
As Britain continues to cope with the impact of the pandemic and a return to the office begins, employers will have to take practical steps to ensure their staff feel comfortable and confident to work in order to maintain a motivated and productive workforce. Our employment department anticipates employment issues to increase with the return to the workplace and is available to assist you to manage return-to-work and other COVID-19 employment matters in a fair and effective manner.
Article Written by: Syvanne Aloni