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On 04 July 2020, we saw what has been dubbed ‘Super Saturday’ as lockdown restrictions were eased, particularly in England. As we continue to see an easing of the lockdown measures, more employers are preparing to phase their workforces back to work.

Employers will likely need to be flexible as they put measures in place given that COVID-19 is expected to remain a risk for the foreseeable future. Like we saw in Leicester at the beginning of the month, a resurgence in infections may result in more localised lockdowns, and so employers must be mindful of this.

The purpose of this insight article is to:

  • Provide employers with five practical steps to working safely as we emerge from lockdown.
  • Consider effective communication with the workforce about returning to work.
  • Look at workplace issues that may arise as employees return to work.

Five steps to working safely as the workforce returns

On 11 May 2020, the Government published the first batch of its COVID-19 Secure guidelines, and at the time of writing, were updated on 03 July 2020.

The guidelines were the result of engagement between the Government, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), public health authorities, business representative groups, unions, employers and local authorities, to agree the best way to minimise the risks of catching the virus in the workplace.

The guidelines are listed HERE and are supported by five key steps to working safely which employers need to implement. They are:

1. Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment. Before employees are asked to return to work, employers should ensure the safety of their workplaces by:

  • Carrying out a risk assessment in line with HSE guidance.
  • Consulting with their workers or trade unions.
  • Sharing the results of their risk assessment with their workforces and on their websites.

When the Government announced the publication of the COVID-19 Secure guidelines, it suggested that employers should publish the results of their risk assessments on their websites and stated that the Government expected all businesses with over 50 employees to do so.

2. Develop cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures. Employers are called on to ensure an increased frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning by:

  • Encouraging people to follow the NHS guidance on hand washing.
  • Providing hand sanitiser around the workplace, in addition to washrooms.
  • Frequently cleaning and disinfecting objects, shared equipment and surfaces that are touched regularly.
  • Enhancing cleaning for busy areas.
  • Setting clear use and cleaning guidance for toilets.
  • Providing hand drying facilities (either paper towels or electric dryers).

3. Help people to work from home. Employers should take all reasonable steps to help people work from home by:

  • Discussing home working arrangements.
  • Ensuring they have the right equipment, for example, remote access to work systems.
  • Including them in all necessary communications.
  • Looking after their physical and mental wellbeing.

4. Maintain two-metre social distancing, where possible. Employers should do this by:

  • Putting up signs to remind workers and visitors of social distancing guidance.
  • Avoiding sharing workstations.
  • Using floor tape or paint to mark areas to help people keep to a two-metre distance.
  • Arranging one-way traffic through the workplace if possible.
  • Switching to seeing visitors by appointment only if possible.

5. Where people cannot be two metres apart, manage transmission risk. Employers should do this by:

  • Considering whether an activity needs to continue for the business to operate.
  • Keeping the activity time involved as short as possible.
  • Using screens or barriers to separate people from each other.
  • Using back-to-back or side-to-side working whenever possible.
  • Staggering arrival and departure times.
  • Reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using fixed teams or partnering.

A downloadable poster, ‘Staying COVID-Secure in 2020’, has been produced reflecting the five steps which employers should display in their workplaces to show their employees, customers and other visitors that they have followed the Government’s guidance. It can be accessed HERE.

Acas has also produced a podcast called ‘How can we return to work well’, which you can listen to HERE:

Communicating about returning to work

The objective in all the workplace guidelines is to ensure that all workers understand COVID-19 related safety procedures. When returning to work, the guidelines suggest that employers should:

  • Provide clear, consistent and regular communication to improve understanding and consistency in ways of working.
  • Engage with workers through existing communication routes and worker representatives to explain and agree any changes in working arrangements.
  • Develop communication and training materials for workers prior to their return, especially around new procedures for arriving at work.

Thereafter, to ensure that all workers are kept up to date with how safety measures are being implemented or updated, the guidelines suggest that the following will usually be needed:

  • Ongoing engagement with workers (including through trade unions or employee representative groups) to monitor and understand any unforeseen impacts of changes to working environments.
  • Awareness and focus on the importance of mental health at times of uncertainty.
  • Simple, clear messaging to explain guidelines using images and clear language, with consideration of groups for which English may not be their first language.
  • Visual communications, for example, whiteboards or signage, to explain changes to schedules, breakdowns or materials shortages to reduce the need for face-to-face interactions.
  • Communicating approaches and operational procedures to suppliers, customers or trade bodies to help their adoption and to share experience.

Workforce issues an employer may face after lockdown

Many of the issues facing employers as they emerge from lockdown will be similar to those they faced when the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic started to impact on peoples’ lives and work.

Sickness absence

While the rate of transmission of COVID-19 has been reduced by lockdown, it is expected that transmission will increase as lockdown measures are eased.

Employers may have been affected by high sickness absence levels before the lockdown was announced, either because their staff were ill or needed to self-isolate in accordance with government guidance. This may have impacted on an employer’s ability to carry out their normal business activities, and the likelihood of this continuing should be taken into account when they plan their path out of lockdown.

Mental health

Employers may find that their employees’ mental health has been affected by any of the following:

  • Illness. Employees may have had COVID-19, or know others (family, colleagues and friends) who have been severely affected by it. They may have suffered bereavements. They may be worried about the ongoing risk of contracting COVID-19 and about commuting and being at work.
  • Finances. Employees may have suffered lost income as a result of being laid-off, agreeing to pay cuts or being furloughed. Their family finances may also have been affected through similar measures or by job loss.
  • Future employment. Many employees will be worried about losing their job in the short or medium term.
  • Family. Many employees will be concerned about elderly relatives and children. They may also have ongoing issues about organising work and childcare while their children remain out of school.

Employers should take account of the impact on mental health when communicating with staff and organising a return to work. Those employers who already have provision to support employees’ mental health can direct them to their policies and resources.

Acas has published guidance, ‘Coronavirus and mental health at work’, to assist employers and employees in managing their mental health during the pandemic, whether they are working from home, anxious about having to leave home to go to work or are furloughed. The guidance suggests that employers may consider appointing a mental health champion or setting up a mental health support group. Workplace counselling, such as Employee Assistance Programmes, or using a Wellness Action Plan from the mental health charity, Mind, are other options for supporting employees’ wellbeing.

Public Health England has also published guidance (HERE) for the public on the mental health and wellbeing aspects of COVID-19, which considers groups with particular health needs and provides sources of support.

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