Living with COVID: What Should Employers Do?
The government’s removal of all COVID laws has signalled it is time for people and organisations to have their own strategies for Living with COVID. This is welcomed by many business sectors; however, it also raises questions about how to do this without compromising the health and welfare of workers and customers. Employers need to strike a balance between living with COVID-19 whilst maintaining the safety and wellbeing of their people. The question is how?
This guidance seeks to help you plan and implement your own route-plan for Living with COVID at your workplace.
Should employees still self-isolate if they test COVID-positive?
The debate here is that employees no longer have to self-isolate if they test COVID-positive. They have never done this when employees have a mild virus or infection such as the common cold, so why should COVID be different?
Whilst many who have contracted the virus have been fortunate in experiencing very mild or even no symptoms, others have not been so fortunate and have taken several days/weeks off work. Age (and numerous other factors) may have a bearing on this. The Omnicrom variant is also known to be highly infectious. Therefore a balance is needed between short-term benefits of staff working (when unwell) against potential increase in sickness absence. There is also the morale issue – considering increased anxiety/mental wellbeing of staff who have been vigilant in minimising risk of exposure.
How will employees know they are COVID-positive without testing?
The reduction /removal of widespread testing is likely to result in many people having the virus without knowing for sure whether it is COVID. Details are awaited from the government about what free testing will remain and in which sector(s). Employers must decide if and when they ask an employee to work from home or to self-isolate. This also brings into question the issue of sick leave payment if someone is asked to self-isolate. You should review your sick-pay policy against your other policies (including COVID) and consider whether they need changing.
What about clinically vulnerable employees?
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to ensure “as far as reasonably practicable” that both employees and non-employees are protected from workplace risks. For employees who have long-term health conditions lasting more than one year, The Equality Act 2010 will apply. This requires employers to make “reasonable adjustments”. Given the removal of mandated self-isolation, employers should consider what reasonable adjustments are warranted without being discriminatory. Review your vulnerable worker risk assessment process to ensure these people can work safely, effectively and without fear or discrimination.
What should employers do?
- Decide your Living with COVID Strategy: Agree at corporate level what your stance is relating to Living with COVID and your own strategy. It is important that you consider how your workforce feels too. Engage with them at the earliest opportunity to ensure buy-in to any changes you make. Whilst public mood tends to be ever fluid, current polls suggest that approximately 70% of workers want some measures to continue.
- Review your COVID risk assessment: And consider what reasonable controls can remain (at least in the short-term). It remains prudent to maintain some basic measures such as reasonable distancing and good hygiene. You should consider adopting simple “infection control” protocols which are part of the DNA of any healthcare provider. A simple infection control policy covers all common infections and benefits you with reduced sickness/absence as well as worker anxiety. Your risk assessment should be completed with your Living with Covid strategy in mind. Continuing with enhanced cleaning regimes, reasonable distancing and agile working is likely to reduce common-colds being spread as well as COVID.
- Review your Policies: Once you have decided your stance on issues such as your policy on pay if someone self-isolates, who should isolate, for what reasons (Covidonly or other infectious conditions too?), the next step is to review your policies. Both your HR and health and safety policies should be checked to ensure they align.
- Inform and Engage your Teams (customers and others): Gaining buy-in and compliance with your safety protocols can only occur if you take your workforce along with you. Your teams are more likely to cooperate when they understand how your policy keeps them safe and their own contribution. This should include consequences of non-cooperation as well. So engagement and sharing information and concerns is essential, particularly during the early days as you relax your controls. If your workplace has visitors coming into your premises ensure they know about your modified arrangements.
And finally, some practical tips on living with COVID
- We have become much more adept at adapting to working in different ways. Continue to innovate by experimenting with new ways of working/moving teams around (multi-skilling) etc . this will improve your flexibility with someone who is unwell (COVID, common cold etc) to isolate without penalty.
- Consider setting up your own COVID testing arrangements
- Purchase home testing kits for employees that can be purchased at discounted rates compared to retail prices
- Consider changing shift times/hours so avoid the main rush hour periods for those using public transport.
- Talk to an expert – if you would like help or support with any of these steps please contact us for a free 30 minute consultation.
After two years of constant disruptions, challenges and limitations, it is encouraging that we are looking forward. Many organisations found unexpected benefits from the changes that were forced on them, and some changes will remain in place.
For your teams to continue working safely, effectively and confidently, you will need a unified approach between HR, H&S and production/service delivery. It is very important that all your staff feel safe as restrictions are removed. Maintaining some simple and basic safety controls will protect your staff from COVID and from other germs too. The cost savings from maintaining low sickness/absence may not be immediately tangible but will improve production, customer service and growth.