As the world continues to monitor the spread of the coronavirus, business leaders should prepare for the possibility of having an employee contract the virus.
If and when this happens, employers must be sensitive and smart about how they respond for the safety of their employees and their businesses.
1. Consider your ill employee's emotional well-being
Proactive empathy and clarity can go a long way in supporting your employees’ well-being, which will become critically important as concerns about their health, their families' health and their ability to earn a living arise.
“COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of every company structure; its communication systems, flexibility, compassion and above all, trust,” says Claude Compton, founder of Pave Projects, a London-based hospitality group. "We were a business at the sharp end of the virus control measures. As an employer, we understood it was vital to provide clarity, strength and reassurance across the board through this time.”
Affected employees may or may not have tapped public or private mental health resources to cope with their anxiety, so as an employer, it’s important to be empathetic. Consider asking how they are doing psychologically – depending on what you hear, consider pointing them in the direction of therapeutic online resources.
“How businesses treat their staff during the COVID-19 pandemic should be considered by employers and HR professionals as a fundamental test for employee relations,” says James Champness, a senior associate in the employment team at Kemp Little, a law firm based in London.
It's simple: a workforce that feels valued and supported by their employer will be more likely to stay motivated and productive.
2. Be fair and generous about missed work
You want employees who express symptoms of COVID-19 to stay at home, but they may be reluctant to do so if their livelihoods are on the line. To make them comfortable with being unable to work, proactively communicate your business' policies and the laws and regulations designed to support people who contract COVID-19.
“Most employees will be entitled to receive at least Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) (currently £95.85 per week) if they are absent due to ill-health, and this may be increased by contractual enhanced schemes,” says Champness. “Employees absent from work with COVID-19 symptoms are entitled to receive SSP from the first day of their absence (rather than the fourth day, as is normally the case for SSP). Smaller employers, with fewer than 250 employees, should be aware of the Coronavirus Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme, which will repay employers the SSP paid to current or former employees for up to two weeks.”
If SSP is not appropriate because an employee is not sick, self-isolating, or shielding, Champness says employers should be open-minded to other possibilities in how they treat periods of absence. This might include allowing employees to use annual leave, or use of the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, also known as furlough.
“At Pave Projects, we immediately re-purposed our existing communication channels to provide clear and regular information and support, providing dedicated personnel to advise on specific issues, both work related and domestic,” Compton says.
3. Be selective when sharing information with team members
How and who you inform about an employee diagnosis is a delicate matter, and there are nuances business owners should think about.
“Sick employees should be treated with respect, but employers should also be mindful as to how they deal with members of staff who may not be sick themselves, but who are self-isolating if a family member is ill, or who have been told to stay at home if coronavirus presents a high risk of severe illness,” says Champness.
Guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office says employers should keep staff informed about cases of COVID-19 within the organisation. Companies have an obligation to ensure the health and safety of their employees, as well as a duty of care. However, you don’t need to name individuals or provide more information than necessary. Instead, keep staff informed about potential or confirmed cases amongst their colleagues.
When you do communicate status to other team members, reaffirm your company’s commitment to data privacy and how you handle their personal data. Explain that the reason for the notice is to maintain transparency and allow the employee to make informed health decisions.
4. Safeguard your business from exposure
“Employees who are unable to work remotely are encouraged by the Government to return to work where this is possible, and employers are obliged to follow relevant Government guidance to ensure that workplaces are as safe as reasonably possible,” Champness says.
The CIPD, FSB, and UK Government websites are good resources to help you protect your workplaces from the spread of COVID-19. The specific measures you'll need to take depend on your business. You might consider enforcing social distancing, increasing sanitation practices and screening employees (for example, instead of relying on employees to self-report symptoms, you might want to conduct a temperature scan as they enter the workspace).
Carl Reader, Joint Chairman at d&t, a UK accountancy firm, says flexibility has become a key part of decision-making. “With the current economic situation as of today, it has been easy to forget in business that this is a very real public health issue as well," he says. "Every business that I am involved in is committed to remote working until the safety of team members can be assured.”
It is a time of uncertainty and concerns for many in the workplace, and your people will look to you for reasonable and compassionate action. Not only is doing right by COVID-19 affected and unaffected employees during this time period humane – it helps preserve the long-term health of your business.