As the Government tries to give rules to business to control the spread of Coronavirus while returning to full output, employees are worried. Many believe that by returning they put themselves and their families at heighted risk of contracting Covid-19.
So how does a manager navigate this added nightmare where employees claim they must be allowed to stay off, even if their colleagues are returning? And what happens if there are a few employees who want to be allowed to stay at home because they believe that no matter what you do, they are still not safe.
There are three watchwords – risk, mitigation and reasonableness.
We all run a risk of contracting Covid-19. If we stay isolated, that risk is minimal. The reference that most folk would consider minimal is the risk that existed before the spread of Coronavirus. In the new normal, that minimal is history. Any venture out from our homes increases the risk from that near-zero level.
We must then consider the normal risk that the Government has asked us to accept today while going about our lives. The mitigation that the Government recommends centres on keeping two metres from all others. That mitigation still heightens risk from the minimal but would be considered acceptable by most reasonable people.
The risk during one two-metre rule encounter is extremely low, and when considered over a day, popping to the supermarket or talking to the postman, occupies little time and hence even multiple occasional encounters overall does little to heighten the chance of exposure.
But at work, most people are there, exposed for eight hours. The chance of exposure is heightened. And at work, most are exposed to many others, further increasing the risk.
It is therefore understandable that some employees say that the risk is unacceptable if they come to work. The risk is certainly higher than under the normal of 2019, for example. But most reasonable people would balance the need to get back to work and earn a wage with this risk, and would accept this increase. Their assumption is that Covid-19 won’t kill them.
But what if an employee or their family has underlying health conditions – like diabetes.
In this case, the risk of contracting Covid-19 is the same as anyone else. Arguably, as reasonable people, they would be happy to balance the risk with the need to earn. But they’re different. The chance is quite high that if they do contract the virus, it will kill them.
Instantly, you’ll see that all employees are not the same. Some are young and healthy and happy to come to work. Others are maybe older and at greater risk, or feel that they are at greater risk. This is exemplified by the bizarre goings-on in Parliament. The Leader of the House is demanding that MPs return to work. Many are indeed older, with underlying health issues and this is creating an equality issue. In this case, the employer (Parliament) is implementing a work process that discriminates and that is not lawful.
So how does a manager navigate this maze?
The two-metre rule is a form of mitigation. It reduces the chance of exposure. There are many other mitigations that managers could introduce and there is significant guidance available on this industry by industry.
Follow this link for The Guardian's view on the 2-metre rule at work - https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jun/14/what-could-a-physically-distanced-uk-look-like-after-lockdown.
Managers must put in place mitigation to reduce the risk from coronavirus. That is a legal responsibility deriving from their obligation to assure employee health and safety.
But the problem is that whilst everyone may have a low, and equal, chance of contracting Covid-19, those with underlying health issues are more likely to die from it. This complicates things for managers. While they may conduct risk assessments and conclude that the risk of exposure to coronavirus is low – low enough for a reasonable person to be happy to return to work – others may deem that the risk of death to them is too high.
This is the same situation that managers face across industry when a general risk assessment concludes that the risk of occurrence (of some untoward event, like a train crash) is minimal, but the effect is huge. The two together mean that the manager must act. That’s why certain industries have developed elaborate controls.
So what’s a manager to do when faced with an employee who believes that the risk to them is unacceptable?
Sadly, ACAS and other advisory services don’t help. They simply advise that the manager should discuss the return to work with the employee and put in place such mitigation as is reasonable. That’s a given. Of course you’ll do that. You’ll do all that is reasonable.
But there comes a point, after you’ve put in place mitigation for the reasonable person. And you’ve put in place more mitigation for those employees who need more to protect them from death.
Then what? What do you do when they still say they are worried and want to be left on furlough when their colleagues are all returning.
The answer might sound callous. In the end, when you have done all that you can. When you’ve talked through all the mitigations and the new business processes. And some employees still say that they believe that it is still not safe for them. You may have to discuss with them that, in the new normal that is coronavirus, it may simply be that they will never feel safe in your firm.
It may simply be that those employees, as a result of a shift in the work environment that is neither theirs nor their employer’s fault, can no longer work with you. Perhaps, indeed, they can no longer work in that industry. They will have to be dismissed by reasons of capability.
Of course, you’ve a long way to go before you conclude that, and begin the action to dismiss. And it won’t be nice, telling someone that there is simply no way that, given their assessment of the risk to themselves, they no longer have a future with you.
It’s not their fault. It’s not your fault. It’s nature; circumstances; fate or whatever term you use to describe an act of God.
So, as you start the process of bringing your employees back, as you conduct your risk assessments and implement your mitigations against coronavirus, remember that there will be a small proportion of your employees who won’t feel safe. You will have to steel yourself for the very new, very foreign, very testing management situation ahead.