Employment Law expert, David Morgan urges employers to be mindful of their duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of staff during these difficult times.
At this time of year the minds of employment lawyers often turn to reminding employers and employees of the risks of over-indulgence and misbehaviour at the office Christmas party; but in this most unusual of years cautionary tales of drunken antics and subsequent legal cases have faded into irrelevance.
In November we entered a second period of lockdown. Employees are again required to work from home whenever reasonably possible and many ‘non-essential’ businesses have been forced to close altogether. Employees who had returned to their place of work during the summer now face another period of enforced working from home and the furlough scheme, which has proved to be a lifeline to many employers and employees, has been extended yet again so that some employees may now face up to a year away from their workplace.
The effect of COVID-19 on the well-being of employers and employees has been immense. The mental health charity MIND believes that half of adults in the UK will have experienced a deterioration in their mental health during the pandemic, and as the economic climate becomes increasingly difficult these levels are unlikely to fall. Employers fighting tooth and nail for economic survival also face the challenge of ensuring they deal with the impact of COVID-19 on their employees and continue to comply with their legal obligations with regard to health and safety.
Some tips to assist employers to support the wellbeing of staff who are furloughed or working at home for prolonged periods include:
- Schedule regular meetings or phone calls with those working from home in order to maintain supervision and contact - almost a third of employees report feeling isolated during the pandemic
- Increase the use of emails and other electronic communications to employees to keep them updated with news about the company and include furloughed employees in such communications
- Keep in personal touch with employees who are furloughed – a chat to ask how the employee is will not constitute work and will not break the rules of the furlough scheme
- Ensure staff are not overworking – significant numbers of employees report working additional hours and taking fewer breaks when working from home out of fear that they will otherwise be seen as taking advantage
- Make employees aware of where they can obtain advice and support regarding their wellbeing.
This year has seen frequent and significant changes to employment law due to the impact of the coronavirus. However one thing which has not changed is the employer’s duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of staff. Employers should take care to ensure that this does not slip under the radar in these pressured and difficult times.