On 2nd February I wrote to all our clients to provide some basic advice on the management of the Coronavirus in their workplace. With the Department of health today describing the outbreak in the UK as a “serious and imminent threat” to public health, the overall risk to the population now classified as “moderate”.
Since putting out our email last Sunday, we have had several enquiries about the virus and I want to make sure you know what to do, before jumping to any conclusions or saying the wrong thing to staff in your workplace …..
At the current time, there are 8 confirmed cases of the Coronavirus in the UK and therefore absolutely no need to panic. There is a lot of chatter on social media and a lot of misinformation around. So, before you do anything, make sure you know what the latest Government advice is, and stick to it!
Government advice can be found in the following places:
As an employer, you do have a duty of care to all of your employees. You are responsible for maintaining a healthy and safe working environment. It is important that all of your staff feel included and more important that none feel bullied, harassed or excluded due to their race or nationality.
If you have staff who have been to China in the last month (whether as tourists or for work), it is a good idea to have a one to one meeting with them to ensure that they are ok – medically and mentally. If you have staff with family or friends in China (or other high infected areas), again you may want to have a conversation with them to let them know your door is open and if they want to talk, they are welcome to do so. This is going to be a worrying time for people.
For parents with kids at university where many Asian students are now walking around in masks, again this can have a negative impact on the workplace, so start a conversation and ensure that people have the right information.
For staff travelling to work on crowded public transport, again discuss any concerns, but don’t allow people to get themselves consumed by the issue. We have 8 known cases in the whole of the UK – less than the common cold in winter. If you want to flex the working hours of your staff, or if they want to flex their hours so they are not travelling in the peak rush hour, this may be a sensible precaution, but there is no obligation on you to grant this should it be requested. Any variation to working hours, even on a temporary basis, should be documented for the sake of clarity and reviewed regularly as the health situation evolves. You also need to be careful you don’t discriminate against staff, if you are willing to grant this for one person, can your business cope if several people make the request?
Should you suspect someone has been in contact with an infected person, then you are within your rights to ask them to self-isolate. But you must ensure that you are doing this based on fact, not rumour or ‘gut feel’. Where possible ask them to work from home and enable them to do so. Discuss the practicalities of staying in touch with colleagues and delivering work. Ensure you, or their line manager or a nominated colleague, has regular contact with the individual during the day via phone, email or chat rooms. This will help to reduce their isolation and to ensure their well-being.
School closures may also become an issue for employees if the situation develops. Today, two schools in the UK were closed due to suspected cases of the Coronavirus and therefore children are sent home. For some parents, there is no alternative childcare and therefore they may not be able to come into work. In normal circumstances, grandparents may be drafted in, but given the increased vulnerability in the elderly, asking them to babysit in these circumstances may just not be appropriate. Decide how you are going to handle these absences. Are they paid or unpaid? Are you asking people to take unpaid parental leave? Would you allow them to use holiday time? Will you ask them to work from home? Or perhaps to make up the hours at a later date? The appropriate arrangements will vary between businesses, so have an open discussion with employees now and then implement a clearly documented policy consistently across your business should you need to do so.
Encourage any employees with concerns about their health to contact the NHS on 111 and not to attend their doctor surgery or the hospital unless told to do so by staff at 111.
In terms of the office environment, there are some basic hygiene steps which can be taken:
- Ensure that an antibacterial soap is available in all toilets and encourage staff to wash their hands-on entry to the office in the morning.
- Purchase some antibacterial hand sanitiser for use in the office
- Ensure that the offices are cleaned daily and use antiseptic, gloves and disposable clothes.
- Ensure all door handles, light switches and work surfaces are cleaned.
- Ensure that hot water and detergent are used in kitchen areas where a dishwasher is not available.
- Where a dishwasher is available, use it on a daily basis, using a hot setting – do not leave dirty dishes overnight
- Put boxes of tissues around the office and encourage people to use them – it is believed that the virus is spread through coughs and sneezes.
- All used tissues should be put straight into the bin, preferably one with a lid. Ensure that the bins are emptied daily.
- If you have hot desking areas, ensure that they are properly cleaned and disinfected between users. This may include keyboards and telephone handsets.
- If your staff use or share company cars, again ensure that these are properly cleaned, especially between drivers.
This list is not exhaustive, but are an indication of the steps you can take in your working environment.
Where you believe it is necessary, carry out a risk assessment and keep referring to the official government websites for the most up to date information.
At the current time, it appears that the majority of the 900 of those who have passed away from the virus are those with pre-existing underlying medical conditions. On this basis, people are being advised to look after themselves and to give themselves the best possible opportunity to fight off the virus, should they contract it. In this instance, self-help includes: a healthy diet, plenty of sleep, lowering of stress levels, some regular exercise and potentially vitamin supplements. This is all good advice whether you are fighting a virus or not.
As an employer, your role in self-help is that of encouraging staff to look after themselves.
You are not obliged (at the current time) to permit staff to work from home, or even to pay them if they are off work. However, you do need to be mindful that in not paying staff for absence days, they may come to work ill and potentially spread any virus that they have – common cold, ‘flu, or the Coronavirus.
It is important to remember that at the current time (10th February), there is still a lot of uncertainty about how the virus is spreading and how dangerous it is. The above guidelines are based on what we currently believe about the virus and good office hygiene. If you have any concerns about your staff or your office environment, you must seek official advice.