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Returning to Work after Covid-19

After being away from the workplace for a while, employees may have worries and concerns about returning to work. Some have been off for several weeks others it could be months. The Health and Safety of employees must be a priority for all employers.

Employers need to ensure they address any employee concerns that they have when planning their return to work; if it is not handled and managed correctly it could have an impact on employee’s mental health and well-being; and cause further mental health issues. It is going to be challenging for people to readjust as lock down measures gradually begin to relax and employers need to retain their employee’s confidence in their ability to protect their physical and psychological health.

Making the workplace safe

Employers must make the workplace as safe as possible for staff, customers, and anyone else that is to visit the premises. Employers must:

  • Encourage staff to work from home, wherever this is possible.
  • Do a risk assessment to identify what might cause harm and take reasonable steps to prevent it.
  • Follow government guidelines on working safely during coronavirus.

Discussing plans with employees

Employers and employees should discuss plans to return to the workplace, these discussions should be done as early as possible and it is advised that a return to the workplace should be mutually agreed between employer and employee.

It is best practice to discuss:

  • When employees may return to work.
  • How employees will travel to and from work.
  • How Health and Safety is being managed and reviewed. All risk assessments need to be shared with employees.
  • Any adjustments to the workplace that will be made, for example more hand sanitisers available, increase of washing facilities, changes to start and finish times, short time working, changing layouts of canteens, staggering employee break times, floor markings to adhere to the 2 metre rule, changing layouts so employees are not facing each other but are side to side or back to back.
  • If there is to be a phased return to work, what will this be and who this will include.
  • Working from home arrangements if working from home is an option, or look at doing a mixture of working from home and being in the office.

Anxiety and Returning to work

Many employees returning to work after being furloughed will have concerns about the health risks of returning to work; they will require to know clear provisions in terms of what protective measures are being taken in the workplace.

Employers must listen to any concerns that their employees have, and take steps to protect everyone where possible. Discussions should be held with employees before they return to work as discussed previously.

An employee with anxiety may find that their condition gets worse by traveling or being in public places because of the increased risk of contracting Covid-19.

Severe anxiety could qualify as a disability under the Equality Act 2010 therefore medical advice should also be taken.

If an employee’s anxiety prevents them from attending work, Employers could look at the following options:

  • Arrange for an employee to work different hours temporarily or options of working from home.
  • Taking holiday.
  • Unpaid leave.
  • Sick leave where SSP or contractual sick pay would be in place. (Medical certification would also be required).

Permanent Remote Working

During lockdown, employers may have found remote working has been positive for their business and may wish to implement it long term. (This could also help to reduce costs.)

For employers looking to offer remote working on a permanent basis they will need to consider how employees would feel about a permanent change to this way of working. Some may like the idea, but some may have struggled with home working. Therefore, support will need to be put in place.

As with any significant changes within the workplace, employers must ensure that they remember employee morale, there needs to be a way for employees to stay connected and feel part of the workplace, even if they are to be remote workers.

If permanent remote working is an option, employers will need to decide if they will contribute towards any additional costs the employees may face, higher electric costs, internet costs. Homeworker risk assessments will also need to be done.

NOTE: Unless there is a written term in the contract of employment permitting an employer to make employees work from home, the employer needs to get agreement.

Flexible Requests

Employers may see an increase in the number of flexible working requests they receive, as during the pandemic, employees have seen how their work/life balance has been while working remotely and they may wish to make this a more permanent arrangement. .

Any formal flexible working request that is approved, results in a permanent change to an employee’s contract of employment. It is vital when considering requests that employers look at all the options and assess the pros and cons of the request. (If a Flexible working policy is in place – a full process should be followed.)

Employees refusing to work if they think it is not safe to do so

Some employees may feel that they do not want to go back to work or are unable to return to work yet. This could be because they:

  • Are worried about catching Coronavirus
  • Are at high risk of getting a severe illness if they catch coronavirus
  • Are caring for children who are still off school
  • Are living with a vulnerable person or a carer for a vulnerable person

Employers need to be understanding of employee’s concerns regarding Covid-19 and returning to the workplace, and must communicate to employees the measures in place to protect them. Employers need to listen to employees concerns and address these concerns, by doing this hopefully it can be mutually agreed for an employee to then return to work.

It is natural for an employee to feel anxious returning to work after a period of working from home or being furloughed. If an employee can no longer continue to work from home, then maybe flexible working could be looked at and changes made to the employees’ hours or shift patterns. Alternatively, employers could look at allowing the employee to take a period of unpaid leave or holiday if this can be accommodated. Another option could be for the employee to remain furloughed (if current rules allow)

Employees who are vulnerable or have to self-shield

People who suffer from certain health conditions are at higher risk if they contract Covid-19. Requiring employees to travel to and from work, not paying or dismissing employees due to their absence when this is the reason, could amount to disability discrimination.

For employees who are vulnerable or self-shielding employers could look at the following options:

  • Arrange for an employee to work different hours temporarily,
  • Remaining working from home,
  • Working in a different department or area
  • Short time working.
  • Taking holiday.
  • Unpaid leave.
  • Employee being on sick leave where SSP or contractual sick pay would be in place. (Medical certification would be required stating the disability).

Employees living with vulnerable or shielding people or have Childcare responsibilities

In these circumstances it is not up to the employer to make a reasonable adjustment,  however in these situations, the people the employee is living with would qualify as “dependents”.

Legally employees can take a reasonable amount of time off to take care of dependents, there is no set time limit for this and is dependent on the individual situation.

Employers must talk to employees to understand the individuals’ situation and hopefully mutually agree next steps.

Employers could look at:

  • Arrange for an employee to work different hours temporarily
  • Remaining working from home
  • Working in a different department or area
  • Short time working.
  • Taking holiday
  • Unpaid leave

If an employee does not attend work

If an employee does not attend work, an employer could notionally seek to dismiss an employee, however careful consideration needs to be taken in these cases due to protection under The Employment Rights Act on Health & Safety.

Section 44 of the 1996 Act enables employees to challenge the adequacy and the suitability of any safety arrangements at work without worry about losing their job.

Any dismissal in these cases would almost certainly be classed as unfair. Employees who raise concerns about their Health and Safety in a workplace, may be able to successfully claim unfair dismissal with increased compensation and without needing a minimum period of service.

If an employee refuses to attend work without any valid reason, this could result in disciplinary action under company disciplinary procedures.

If you would like further guidance or support on the situations discussed above, or any other HR issues. please contact Clover HR on 0121 516 0299 or email us at info@cloverhr.co.uk


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