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“Employers must consider the mental health impact of COVID-19”: top lawyers warn of issues businesses may face as workplaces reopen

“Employers must consider the mental health impact of COVID-19”: top lawyers warn of issues businesses may face as workplaces reopen

Leading lawyers from Aaron & Partners have warned of the new challenges HR professionals, business owners and managers will face as a result of coronavirus  

Leading law firm Aaron & Partners has outlined the potential new challenges HR professionals, business owners and managers may face as employees across the UK start to return to the workplace following the lockdown period.

A team of lawyers from the firm have warned that the risks of contracting the virus coupled with the government guidance regarding mitigating them, mean that workplace policies and practices will need careful consideration and will likely require changes before workplaces can reopen.

Claire Brook, an Employment Law Partner at Aaron & Partners said: “The impacts of COVID-19 have been significant and businesses have had to make considerable changes to the way they operate. For HR professionals and managers, this has meant making business critical decisions whilst managing a range of unfamiliar people issues presented by the pandemic.

“As the government begins to ease its lockdown measures, employers will no doubt be planning for some form of return to the workplace in the near future, with some sectors already allowed to return as long as it is safe to do so. However, it’s clear that the workplace will be very different from the pre lockdown situation and employers need to consider the government guidance regarding the changes they need to make.”

Layla Barke-Jones, a Senior Associate in the Dispute Resolution team at Aaron & Partners, added: “Health and Safety will be one of the greatest concerns for employees returning to work. Carrying out a risk assessment is a statutory requirement for employers and businesses need to carefully plan and implement measures to ensure their workplace is safe for employees to return to.

“To offer some help and guidance and avoid potential disputes, we’ve produced a list of five likely issues that could arise as people return to their place of work to help HR professionals, business owners and managers navigate this period.”

  1. Mental Health

The CIPD reported that mental health related absence is the most common cause of long-term sickness absence in UK workplaces and we expect that this will increase as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Some employees may have experienced bereavement, financial pressure, reduced motivation, increased anxiety, feelings of isolation, depression or even post-traumatic stress.

Employers have a duty to consider the welfare of employees and this includes mental health and wellbeing, therefore they should consider how they can support employees experiencing poor mental health whilst they are working remotely, and once they return to the workplace. Regular communication with employees will be vital as individuals will have had different experiences during this time.

  1. Health and safety issues

Health and wellbeing of employees and visitors is paramount and extends beyond the workplace doors and into the lives of everyone they come into contact with – it’s not a tick box exercise but a crucial step in being able to beat the disease and get back up and running.

Each workplace will have its own unique set of challenges and will need to think carefully about the risk of spreading coronavirus and carry out a thorough risk assessment, a helpful aid could be to think of three categories – people, surfaces and space and the risks of spreading coronavirus attached to each. The government has published industry specific guidance, found here:

HSE in Northern Ireland has produced a useful template for a risk assessment which provides a good starting point and can be found here:

The key is to communicate the measures that are put in place, monitor compliance and review. Given how quickly things are changing it will be essential to do this regularly (perhaps daily at first) and in line with the changes in government advice.

  1. Increase in Flexible Working Requests

Whilst there is no right to flexible working (it is simply a right to request), employers should consider the appropriate response to requests and proactively consider the health and safety requirements.

It’s important to take a fair and consistent approach towards flexible working requests to avoid any potential claim for unfairness, grievances and/or potential discrimination claims under the Equality Act 2010.

  1. Differing experiences of furloughed and non-furloughed employees

Careful consideration should be given to return to work relations as each individual will have had a very different experience during lockdown depending on their personal circumstances.  This will also include the different work experiences between non-furloughed and furloughed employees.

HR teams have the opportunity to shape a supportive culture and environment to reduce the risk of tensions and/or any escalation or inappropriate outbursts at work.

  1. Bereavement issues

Many employees will have suffered bereavement during this period and beyond the existing framework on bereavement leave and pay, those affected may have been faced with the trauma of saying goodbye to their loved one remotely (or may not have even had that chance at all).

Employers should consider the potential long-term support they can offer, and any adjustments, such as a phased return to work, additional mental health support or flexible working hours that may be appropriate for an employee who has suffered bereavement in this way.

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