All employers have, “so far as is reasonably practicable,” a responsibility to safeguard “the safety, health and welfare at work of his or her employees”. In order to fully comply with this requirement in the middle of the current crisis, employers need to stay on top of the ever evolving COVID-19 public health protection guidelines. While employees that can work from home are advised to continue doing so, there are many workplaces that will be welcoming at least some employees back over the coming months. The Return To Work Safely Protocol is a joint effort by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA), the Health Services Executive (HSE) and the Department of Health that outlines some of the key areas for consideration for all businesses as they return to work. The protocol is relevant to every employer in Ireland, even those that remained open throughout lockdown.
The Protocol outlines the health and safety requirements that employers must meet prior to reopening. They must complete risk assessments and evaluations, organise training for employees and enlist the help of external health and safety professionals where needed. There is no doubt that documents such as these are a vital starting point. However, while it provides clear guidance on how employers can safeguard the health and safety of their employees, there is little said about the overall welfare of the employees. ‘Welfare’ is described by The Cambridge Dictionary as “physical and mental health and happiness”. It is therefore of the highest importance that business owners and HR give special consideration to this area as they prepare their workplaces for the great return.
Readjustment to the workplace
By now we are no doubt aware of the impact that lockdown and social distancing has had on all of us. Many of us have been sharing homes with partners, children or housemates. For those living in stressful situations, this will no doubt have had an impact on their overall well-being. Meanwhile, employees who have been living on their own may have sorely missed social interaction. Without the usual escape that our social lives can afford us, feelings of stress and anxiety can build up with no release. On the other hand, some employees may have become used to the slower pace of life that lockdown has brought. These employees may find it difficult to transition back to roles where they work alongside others, face the public or use the telephone all day.
Bear in mind, too, that workplaces will be changed environments. Because of the precautionary measures in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19, employees used to working in close proximity with one another may feel isolated upon their return. Screens, room dividers, zoned working areas, individual rooms for vulnerable employees, personal protective equipment – all of these can create an unfamiliar feel for employees that have spent the last number of months in the comfort of their homes.
What you can do
The Return to Work Safely Protocol outlines that there must be an induction training for all employees where the new health and safety measures are outlined. A nice addition to this would be for each manager to have a one to one meeting with each member of staff. This one to one could just be a simple catch up where your employees share how they have been coping throughout lockdown. Encourage your managers to find out whether employees need any extra support to help them readjust to the workplace. Such conversations are vital for building healthy work relationships. Moreover, they will show your employees that you care about their welfare.
Fear will no doubt also play a part in the welfare of your employees. They will be returning to work in the middle of a pandemic. They may fear for their own health or for the health of their loved ones. They may live with a vulnerable person and be afraid they will inadvertently carry infection home with them. They may fear leaving their children at home with an abusive partner. Those that have been laid off previously or returning on short-time may have money worries. There will also be employees who have been unable to visit a loved one in hospital, or who have lost a loved one and been unable to attend their funeral.
What you can do
Above all, compassion is key. Create an open communication with employees. Inform them in advance of all the measures the business is taking to safeguard their health and safety. Encourage them to come and speak with you should they be feeling stressed, anxious or fearful about returning to work. Introduce them to resources for mental health. Print out information sheets and stick them to the doors of toilet cubicles and in employee areas. Create a safe space for employees where they can be on their own to get away from it all.
You should also consider whether your Employee Assistance Programme is up to scratch or if it needs modernising. You may have previously been offering certain benefits to employees that they can no longer utilise throughout the crisis, such as gym memberships or on-site medical and dental. Revisit these to see what changes you can make to adapt to the new ways of working.
A potential knock-on effect of all that built up stress is an increased number of employee conflicts. Tensions will no doubt be high as workers adapt to the new measures. Some employees may take hygiene practices less seriously than others. With so little known about Covid-19, and the length of time it takes symptoms to show, any one of us could be carrying the virus unknowingly. It is this very fact which makes hygiene and distancing measures so important. However, certain employees may have a hard time remembering their responsibilities. Other employees may deliberately flout the rules, out of laziness or stubbornness. This can cause a lot of anger and upset for other employees that are following the guidelines, especially for those who are already worried for the health and safety of themselves or their loved ones.
Individual situations may also mean that certain concessions are made for employees in specific circumstances. This can be seen as favouritism to some other employees and may cause negative feelings or resentment for some in the workforce. Guidelines on zoned areas and working patterns may mean that employees that don’t get along with each other are expected to work together. All the above have the potential to cause serious tension, upset and/or anger in the workplace.
What you can do
During the induction training, it needs to be stated how seriously management will take any infringement on the rules, whether purposeful or not. Having clear signs up around the workplace will remind workers of the need to maintain social distancing, wash their hands and use alcohol hand-rub frequently. However, if an employee is seen to not be taking the measures seriously then they must be spoken with. Try and understand whether the employee has forgotten their responsibilities or whether there is some other reason for their failure to follow guidelines. Remember, you have a duty to your employees to ensure their safety, and if an employee is repeatedly going against the safety guidelines then you may need to take disciplinary action.
Ensure too that you are being as inclusive as possible. If you are offering flexible working arrangements to parents with childcare concerns, are you unconsciously favouring females in this position? If you have put in place extra supports for those most at risk (ie vulnerable workers with an underlying condition being allowed to work in a room on their own) will this cause resentment among your other workers? Any decisions made should be communicated with employees beforehand to minimise the risk of negativity and misconception spreading through your workforce.
When tensions are high, behaviours that are normally accepted as irritating may well become unbearable and cause conflict. In such situations, workers should be encouraged to resolve issues between themselves as a first step. However, should the behaviour persist, you may need to step in. Sometimes matters can be resolved through a private chat with the employee in question. Other matters may require facilitation or mediation.
Increases in Sick Leave
As workers return to the workplace, you may start to notice an increase in the number of absences due to sickness. You no doubt have the requirement for employees to produce a sick note after a certain number of days. Doctor’s certificates are not difficult to get. Employees that are scared to go back to work may well ask to be signed off. Your employee may have a legitimate reason for the fear, such as an underlying condition or mental health reasons. Of course, the more employees go on sick leave, the less of an operational workforce you will have.
What you can do
In such a circumstance, the employer has no option but to keep the role open until the employee is fit to return to work. The employer cannot initiate disciplinary procedures unless they establish that the employee cannot return to work within a reasonable time-frame (usually 12 months to 2 years). This area is a tricky one, but the employer should seek an independent medical at an early stage to establish the nature of the condition and if the employee is likely to return to work in the reasonably foreseeable future.
Other HR Considerations
An employee that refuses to return
In some circumstances, an employee may simply refuse to come back to work. If you have made all the necessary changes in the workplace according to the health and safety guidelines – and if that employee cannot fulfil the duties of their role from home – then you are within your rights to treat any resulting absence(s) as unauthorised, and initiate disciplinary proceedings. However, remember that you should always have an open communication with your employee and try to get to the bottom of their refusal to return. This will help you to treat the refusal appropriately. See our recent blog on this subject here.
If your employees have been working from home throughout the lockdown period, then they will have been accruing annual leave. As travel and distance restrictions remain in place, it is possible that employees may feel that there is no point in taking their annual leave. Or they may feel more rested from their time working from home, in which case they may be less likely to request time off. However, this means they may not be giving themselves enough time to recharge. It also means that you may face a deluge of requests all at once later in the year. Our latest blog on annual leave outlines some suggestions you may wish to incorporate into your workplace. Read here.
As Ireland continues its phased re-opening, many parents will struggle with childcare arrangements. Although parents are no doubt used to the need to organise childcare for school holidays, the fact is that currently professional establishments remain closed. Some parents may not have access to any other form of childcare. Friends and family members that are usually enlisted to help may live too far away to offer support, or they may be in the vulnerable category. Even when childcare facilities and schools reopen, parents may have a very real fear of allowing their children to attend and mix with other children. How have these employees been coping until now? Had they been laid off or working from home? Will this arrangement need to continue, and does it make business sense for it to do so? These questions must be considered on a case by case basis, and open communication with your employee is crucial.
While the welfare of your employees is always important, the return to work will doubtless see all kinds of knock-on effects for employees across the globe. It is more important than ever that employers are pre-empting potential issues and putting a plan in place for a consistent approach.
As an employer, you may well also be experiencing high levels of stress. Make sure that you are being compassionate towards yourself too throughout all this. As the saying goes, you cannot pour from an empty cup!
Should you need any advice on HR matters related to the reopening of your business, feel free to arrange a confidential chat with a member of the team at Insight HR.