06-03-2020

How best to prepare for outbreaks of sickness in the workplace

When the first cases of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) were reported last month, it was widely assumed it would run its course relatively quickly, with a minimal number of people affected resulting in little impact on the UK economy.

Fast forward a week or so, and the landscape has somewhat changed – with the Government now taking action to minimise the spread, and the headlines suggesting that an epidemic is now on the cards. In order to help tackle the issue, those displaying symptoms, or those who have come into contact with someone travelling to and from an affected area, have been advised to ‘self-isolate’ for a period of time.

Advice that could have a significant impact on an individual’s ability to work. Here, our Head of Employment Law Katie Ash talks about the role, and the rights, of an employer when situations such as this arise.

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Of course, any responsible employer would want to ensure that the wellbeing of staff is at the forefront of any decision made with regards sickness and absenteeism.

However, nobody could have predicted the outbreak of Coronavirus or how rapidly it has spread over the past few weeks, and many business owners will rightly have concerns about how to maintain productivity if any employees become affected (or indeed, infected).

Firstly, it’s important to remember that whilst the circumstances here are certainly unique, the overarching theme of illness at work is not, and a clear sickness policy which outlines how you will aim to manage employee’s absence due to sickness should be in place, and the details included in their employment contract.

Your policy should clearly outline what is expected from an employee if they are deemed unfit for work, including who they should contact, when they are expected to provide a sickness note from a GP and guidance on the support they will receive when returning to work.

And whilst it is unlikely to be necessary in cases such as Coronavirus, you should also make clear what the procedure is with long-term sickness and what will happen if returning to work is not a viable option.

What though, many of you may be asking, are your rights as a business owner if your staff member is not sick, but has been recommended to undergo self-isolation because of the virus?

Simply put, at the time of writing this article, there is no legal requirement for an employer to provide sickness pay in these circumstances.

Nevertheless, it may be good practice to treat the absence as sick leave or agree the time to be taken as holiday to avoid risking the employee coming into work and having the threat that they may spread the virus.

If employees are worried about catching the virus and raise concerns about coming into work, it would be best practice to listen to the concerns carefully and produce internal communications about how you are safeguarding the workplace and how employees should respond to symptoms.

This is the same for any illness and as an employer, you should take care in recognising when employees may not seem like themselves.

When developing a code of conduct in response to an illness, if you as an employer request that a staff member should not come into work because of the risk they might spread the disease, then they will be entitled to their usual pay, which would mean their full wages for several weeks, if not months.

As an accountable employer the wellbeing of all your staff should be a priority and you should follow any advice issued by the Government or the NHS in response to sickness symptoms in the workplace.

If a significant proportion of your workforce is affected by sickness during the same period, we can understand that this can have a detrimental impact on your business. In this instance you should speak to your insurance provider and see what provisions there are for covering employees’ salaries if you were to bring in temporary staff or if they would cover employee sickness pay.

Other things to consider would be to make sure you have alternative working parameters in place in case your workplace becomes an unsafe place to work. This may be incorporated by allowing employees to work from home or moving employees into a temporary working environment. When taking this decision, it may be worth speaking with your landlord to see if they have any requirements to help make this into a secure environment.

As a final point, it may surprise many employers to learn that a staggering 2.5 million UK workers are unaware of their employer’s policy on Statutory Sick Pay. There is no legal requirement for you to spend the time to make sure your employee understands your policy, but it is considered good practice to do so, and it may help streamline the process should anyone ever need it.

Usually Statutory Sick Pay is payable from the 4th day of an employee’s absence, but the Government have announced that it will be payable from day 1 in an effort to ensure that the virus can be contained as much as possible and employees don’t come in to work when they really shouldn’t.

For the most up to date information about Coronavirus and how this will affect you and your employees please follow us on social media as we will be actively updating our Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook pages.

If you have any concerns about illness in the workplace or want to ensure you documentation is up to date to best suit the needs of your employees and business our expert team can help, contact them on 01246 560 560.