By Colin Hawes, Head of Claims, Generali UK Employee Benefits
It’s now clear that working from home will continue for some time for many people.
While many have ‘made do’ during the initial stages of lockdown, it’s not going to be enough to leave niggles, aches, pains and anxieties to go unchecked. Now risks need to be identified and appropriate measures put in place. Not only for those employees working remotely, but also of course for those returning to the workplace. For employers there also remains a question mark over whether they’d be liable if returning staff were to fall ill with Covid-19. In short, the way in which providers and brokers partner with clients during this crisis – to proactively help with all of this now – will undoubtedly set the tone for the future.
As we enter the ‘new normal’, some experts are predicting a “tsunami” of mental health issues that have been stored up during lockdown. Others report a significant increase in musculoskeletal complaints. The Institute for Employment Studies’ (IES) Working at Home Wellbeing Survey, carried out during the early stages of lockdown, found that more than half the survey respondents reported new aches and pains, especially in the neck (58%), shoulder (56%) and back (55%), compared to their normal physical condition.
Consequently, mindsets need to shift from short-term fixes to a temporary situation, to long-term ways to prevent deep-seated issues taking hold.
What employee situations could lead to issues?
The key is to anticipate now the issues that may arise in the not-too-distant future. This primarily involves using common sense, listening carefully to the concerns of employees and adopting a flexible approach.
For example, the potential for future difficulties might arise where employees:
Aren’t visiting the GP or seeking clinical support when needed due to the anticipated likelihood of delays;
Face prolonged waiting periods for accessing treatment;
Are experiencing additional strain on their home life and lacking their usual healthy coping systems.
What might good practice look like?
Marc Meryon, Partner and Head of Industrial Relations, Eversheds Sutherland, provides some sensible and practical steps:
Regularise home working arrangements that were initially improvised. Some sort of workstation assessment will now be necessary as well as consideration of fire safety. Employers may also want to consider the best way to manage performance and measure productivity as home working becomes a more established feature of the business. This may involve clearly communicating the employer’s expectations around working hours.
Conduct and document a risk assessment designed to identify the risks of transmission of Covid-19 in the workplace. And identify the steps that can be taken to reduce that risk. The employer must consult either the appropriate health and safety representatives – or the employees directly – over any new safety measures that are to be introduced and it should ensure that employees understand fully the measures which have been implemented as a result of the risk assessment to mitigate risks.
Ensure those instructed to isolate as part of the imminent test and trace regime do not come into work. Absence as a result of this instruction will count as a period of incapacity for work for the purposes of Statutory Sick Pay. As well as SSP of £95.85 the employee may also be entitled to any contractual sick pay that is available. However, there is nothing to stop them from continuing to work if that can be done from home.
Listen carefully to any employee concerns raised about the prospect of returning to work. What if an employee refuses to come back to work, claiming that they consider it dangerous to do so? The crucial question will be whether the employer has taken all reasonable steps to prevent the transmission of Coronavirus in the workplace – and has communicated those to staff, so that they have no reasonable grounds for believing that working entails exposure to serious danger. However, employers may also need to give consideration to the challenges faced by staff in travelling to work. Employers should ensure that they follow government guidance and that they behave reasonably and consistently.
Proactive health and wellbeing support
Partner with existing providers and brokers to ensure proactive support for employees. This might include setting up regular calls with your group income protection provider to discuss how to support absent employees or those showing signs they are struggling. As part of this:
Identify issues early on. Line Managers and Supervisors to consider having virtual 1:1 meetings and signposting to support, such as the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or Private Medical Insurance (PMI). Document wellbeing action points agreed. And follow up with the employee.
Communicate care pathway support. Ensure information about the benefits and services available can be very easily found – for example, on the company intranet. Send periodical reminders to staff, with key messages in line with issues they may be facing and the relevant support available.
Signpost to – and document – clinical support. When sick, encourage employees to make use of Virtual GP services, where available. Employees need to be able to discuss symptoms and contributing factors in order to get access to appropriate support / medication / referrals even if treatments will be delayed due to waiting lists / pandemic delays etc. Documented access to clinical support, symptoms, contributing factors and appropriate referral or medications prescribed will potentially assist with claim assessment. It will also help with access to appropriate support systems should an individual be referred into the Group Income Protection rehabilitation and claims management team.
Communicate first line support arrangements in the workplace. Ensure access to first line support provided by the business is tailored to social distancing rules. And communicate any adjustments that have been made to staff so that employees know there is still support available.
Discuss potential people changes with benefits providers. In advance of any people change announcements from senior management, work with providers to investigate the potential impact on benefits. For example, as highlighted by a HR lead in a recent webinar, their company wanted to move its Singapore function to a 4-day week due to Covid-19 and only found out after the fact that its local health insurance provider would no longer offer cover under those circumstances.