Bosses And Employees Alike Urged To Avoid The Covid Catch-22 On Return To Work
Employment lawyers are reporting a significant rise in COVID-related claims in the workplace and are advising firms and staff alike to take steps to avoid a COVID catch-22 situation when adjusting to the new normal.
Shah Qureshi, the London Head of Employment & Professional Discipline at Irwin Mitchell, says he has seen a 20% rise in COVID-related claims in the last few months and predicts this to rise further by the turn of the year, as employers and employees alike fall foul of new workplace rules.
Expert Opinion“Policies relating to the return to the office can leave employers and employees alike in a catch-22 situation. On the one hand we all want to get back to ‘business as usual’ on the other hand employers have to duty to ensure that employees are returning to a safe workplace. This will inevitably mean companies will adopt policies that some employees will see as draconian such as the mandatory wearing of masks, social distancing and requiring staff to be vaccinated.
"It’s a difficult balance and employers should think twice about disciplining staff for minor transgressions. On the other hand it is vitally important that employers conduct risk assessments to ensure staff return to a safe place of work.” Shah Qureshi - Partner
Many businesses have begun a staged return to the office and while some employees welcome this, others have now adapted to the benefits of working from home, or are concerned about the risks of an office return.
Reports suggest 60% of workers expect some form of restrictions to be back in place this year, be that regional lockdowns or a national return to some restrictions on work and behaviour.
With new lockdowns, or some form of ‘lockdown-lite’ not ruled out for later this year, all sides are adjusting to the new normal, but the rising number of workplace cases suggests employers and employees alike are getting caught in rights and wrongs of a situation that still remains fluid.
With a phased office return underway for many, all are getting to grips with post-COVID etiquette, from deciding if a fist-bump or touching elbows is acceptable, versus a full handshake to more serious matters over mask wearing, meetings in confined spaces, to vaccination status.
Lawyers suggest that while the outlook remains uncertain, having clear policies in place and involving staff is vital to avoid what can be unnecessary disputes or the risk of well-intentioned policy changes being misused for unintended purposes, such as disciplinary procedures.
Shah added: “Neither side is quite sure how to behave and while adjusting to a ‘new normal’ this may be just a ‘new for now’ and we may all have to adapt again to changing circumstances. If we do see a significant uptick in people catching COVID in the workplace, there is always the risk of personal injury type claims, particularly in cases where COVID-related health and safety measures are not adopted”.
“Businesses need well thought out policies in place, so they are ready for likely eventualities, such as staff meeting clients who may take a more relaxed approach, for example.
“Making up company policy on the fly is never a good idea and if ill-conceived COVID policies are taken out of context and used to censure or dismiss a staff member, an employer has already formed a negative opinion about, they could cause more problems than they solve.”
“Employers also need to make adjustments for workers who may be particularly vulnerable to COVID such as pregnant women or those with particular disabilities to ensure their health and safety is protected and they do not suffer discrimination.”
“Depending on how policies are drafted, someone could find themselves disciplined for a minor breach of rules, like forgetting to wear a mask. Working out rules all can accept in this new world is going to help everyone. With employers needing to balance the health and wellbeing of staff and the business, getting it right reduces the risk to health time and temper and should keep post-lockdown dilemma to a minimum.”