After an awful 2020, many of us steeled ourselves with the hope and expectation that 2021 would be better. Unfortunately, January 2021 has brought further challenges with multiple new virus strains, disturbing death rates, lockdown 3.0 and school closures.
Whilst lockdown 3.0 may be “logistically easier”, as many businesses and employees are now set up for working from home, this lockdown is perhaps the most challenging yet from a wellbeing and mental health perspective.
Many are reaching (or have reached) their limit, after protracted periods of isolation from family and friends, cancelled holidays and events, periods of furlough, financial struggles, ill-health, dismal weather and cabin fever…
It is, therefore, critical to really focus on employee well-being and engagement at this time, both for homeworkers and those who are required to attend the workplace and/or travel for work. Below are just a few issues to consider.
Support the challenge of home schooling
After six months of juggling home schooling and work last year, the prospect of doing the same until 8 March 2021 (at the earliest) is difficult for working parents both from a mental health and practical perspective.
Acknowledging this challenge at a senior level in your business and offering support is a powerful way of reducing employees’ stress, boosting their morale and engendering loyalty going forwards. Some practical things to consider are:
- Communicate individually with affected employees, wherever possible, and agree a way forward.
- You can furlough employees (on a full-time basis) who are unable to work due to caring commitments.
- If employees can only work reduced hours (and deliver reduced outputs), due to caring commitments, they may wish to agree a temporary variation to their hours and pro rata pay. Alternatively, flexible furlough may be appropriate.
- Staff may want to take some paid holiday, which should be approved and recorded in the usual way.
- Staff may take dependants’, parental or other unpaid leave, although that is unlikely while paid furlough is still available.
Where feasible and commercially viable, consider utilising flexible furlough and rotating furlough amongst staff (rather than simply keeping staff on full furlough), to make them feel more engaged and purposeful. Having the focus and distraction of work can be very helpful for wellbeing and mental health.
Support mental health
It is especially engaging where the importance of mental health is championed at a senior level in your business. You may want to consider the following:
Encourage your employees to focus on their self-care and wellbeing, take time to exercise and get outside in the fresh air where possible. Make clear that you do not expect or want staff to be chained to their computers all day and that it is acceptable and desirable for them to take a break and work reasonable hours.
Be proactive and keep engaging with staff: ask your staff how they prefer to be communicated with, check in regularly with them and deal with any concerns they may have. Having a conversation with someone can make make them feel valued by their employer which, in turn, creates good employee relations.
Employee Assistance Programmes: Remind employees of your EAP if you have one in place. If not, consider investing in this.
Mental health first aiders: Many companies’ HR teams or other designated employees have been trained as mental health first aiders, so that there is someone for employees to talk to and discuss their struggles and fears confidentially (although you should make clear that mental health first aiders might need to inform a senior manager if they believe an employee is at risk). Investing in something like this goes a long way to make employees feel valued.
Awareness and training: Ensure managers understand possible mental health issues, giving them simple training where possible. Managers should also be instructed not to send emails to employees “out of hours” as that will place further pressure on employees.
Establish peer support networks, e.g. using Microsoft Teams or Zoom to ensure peers are having regular conversations
Set realistic workloads and objectives
Consider what productivity is realistic for your employees, taking into account their personal circumstances and commitments, and ensure they understand what tasks they should be working on and any expected timescales and standards. If you notice performance issues or a drop in productivity, talk to staff and ask how they’re feeling.
Trusting people and allowing them a little “slack” (but not free rein) engenders loyalty and engagement for most staff and often motivates them to go the extra mile to do their job due to their appreciation for the “give and take” demonstrated by their employer.
Look out for your clinically “extremely vulnerable” employees who, after a few months’ respite from the isolation of shielding last year, have now been advised to shield again, at least until the current period of lockdown is lifted. This group may be particularly isolated, lonely and anxious and may also face financial pressures if they cannot work from home and are only in receipt of SSP.
Consider utilising furlough for this group (with their agreement), if you have not already done so. As long as they were employed on or before 30 October 2020, you can put them on furlough, even if they have not been on furlough before.
Staff who are required to attend the workplace/travel for work
Where staff cannot work from home, the government guidance is that they should travel to work if their workplace is open (and COVID-secure) and that those who are required work in other people’s homes (e.g. nannies, cleaners and tradespeople) may continue to do so.
However, employers must take all reasonable steps to protect these individuals’ physical and mental health, recognising that they may be anxious or reluctant to return to the workplace. This could be for a variety of reasons, including due to being clinically vulnerable themselves or having a vulnerable family member. You should, therefore, bear the following in mind:
Support staff in avoiding public transport
The government advice is that travel to work should preferably be by foot, bike or own transport, and that people should avoid public transport and car sharing with those from outside their household or support bubble wherever possible. You should support this by expanding bicycle storage facilities, changing facilities and car parking, where possible.
Unfortunately, many of the population have no option but to use public transport to get to work. They may be anxious about this, despite the government requirement to use “face-coverings” when using public transport (or in enclosed areas of transport hubs) and to socially distance. To alleviate any anxiety and minimise risks, consider allowing staff to avoid peak travel times on public transport (where possible), perhaps staggering working hours.
Ensure the workplace is COVID-secure
When planning for and asking staff to return to work, you must protect health and safety and minimise the risk of contamination as far as possible.
Ensure that you follow the COVID-19 secure guidelines, any government guidance relating to your particular industry and any other official guidance from HSE, PHE etc, especially as HSE have the power to temporarily or permanently close down businesses where they believe there is a risk to staff or public.
Key steps for all businesses will include:
- Encouraging home working, where possible.
- Carrying out COVID-19 risk assessments (in consultation with workers or trade unions), paying particular attention to:
- clinically vulnerable employees;
- employees who live with someone “extremely vulnerable” who is still shielding; and
- risks to mental health.
- Reinforcing cleaning processes, especially for communal surfaces (e.g. door handles or lift buttons) and communal areas (e.g. bathrooms, kitchens and drinks points).
- Encouraging regular hand washing and creating hand sanitisation stations.
- Considering the ventilation of the workplace (Advice on air conditioning and ventilation is available from HSE.)
- Maintaining 2 metres social distancing, where possible, and put up signs and implement one-way systems to encourage this. Where people cannot be 2 metres apart, manage transmission risk (e.g. by providing screens between desks).
- Reminding staff and visitors to wear face coverings, if required to do so by law.
- Taking part in NHS Test and Trace and keeping a record of all staff and contractors for 21 days.
- Requiring employees to self-isolate if they or a member of their household have symptoms. Those who are self-isolating must not be required to come in to work.
Minimise the number of people staff come into contact with at work
Support this where practical by:
- changing shift patterns and rotas to keep the same “team” together each time;
- splitting people into smaller, contained teams;
- taking reasonable steps to avoid people being gathered together, e.g. by allowing the use of more entrances and exits and staggering arrival, departure and break times; and
- limiting meetings to essential participants only.
Tread carefully if faced with refusals to return to work
After prolonged periods of home working/furlough/shielding, many individuals are anxious about returning to/attending the workplace. If individuals refuse to return to work at all or to perform certain aspects of their roles, this may be a disciplinary matter if there is no reasonable basis for such refusal. However, carefully consider the reasons for the refusal to ensure that you are not exposing your business to potential claims.
For example, what if the individual claims it is unsafe to return due to lack of PPE, inadequate sanitizer/handwashing facilities, the need to undertake group work and/or travel, inadequate social distancing, a vulnerable family member, having to use public transport…? The list goes on.
Tread carefully and seek advice in such scenarios to avoid potential health and safety or whistleblowing claims which will be costly, time-consuming and reputationally damaging.
What does this mean for you or your business?
In summary, looking after your employees’ physical and mental health is critical at this time, both to maximise employee engagement and your commercial success and also to avoid the potential claims which could arise from getting this wrong, including constructive dismissal, health and safety detriment and dismissal claims, whistleblowing claims.
Please contact Sarah or another member of BPE’s Employment Team if you have any questions or need any support with your staff.
These notes have been prepared for the purpose of an article only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.