By Sarah Dillon, senior solicitor and director for ESP Law (www.esphr.co.uk)
The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified many of the troubles the care home sector was already dealing with. From staffing concerns to keeping safe from infection and protecting mental health – while battling ongoing pressures of caring for vulnerable individuals – these are all obstacles that continue to impact employers and their workforces.
With so many issues to face, how can they tackle some of the most challenging employee relations matters during a global crisis? Sarah Dillon, ESP Law director, provides guidance to help managers face each complexity head-on.
1. ENSURING THAT SERVICES ARE ADEQUATELY STAFFED
There have been many reasons why staffing is a particular issue during the pandemic, which include:
• Some employees being classed as clinically vulnerable and are therefore advised, by the Government, not to work at certain times and for prolonged periods
• Some employees who live with clinically vulnerable individuals feeling too anxious to attend work due to the high rate of infections in care settings
• The requirement to self-isolate due to coming into contact with Covid
• Staff members contracting the virus and being away from work for a minimum of two weeks.
The high level of staff absence has meant there has been a greater reliance on agency workers. These individuals have been in high demand – and therefore less available. Additionally, infection control requirements, to ensure that Covid is not passed between settings, means that businesses have been required to ’block book’ agency workers. Without this option, the care industry would not have been able to function at this time.
It has never been more important for managers to communicate with their employees to reassure them and underline the steps the business is taking to protect health. Additionally, robust sickness management systems have also been vital when dealing with non-Covid-related absence swiftly.
2. STAFF TESTING FOR COVID-19
Following the introduction of weekly testing and temperature checks for care sector staff, this has allowed some organisations to quickly identify asymptomatic and Covid-positive employees and reduce the spread of the virus.
Issues are emerging of employees refusing testing. Employers should explore the reason and evidence behind such requirements before carefully considering what action, if any, to take. Any action could be challenged on discriminatory or unfairness grounds and so taking legal advice is critical.
3. STAFF VACCINES
The authorisation of various vaccines is seen as the single biggest health management tool available to the Government in the fight against the virus. However, some staff members do not wish to receive it. If this is the case, managers should explore:
• Open forums where those who have been given the vaccine can discuss side effects or how they felt about obtaining the vaccine
• Communication with employees as to the perceived risks versus the benefits
• Highlighting senior staff who have been vaccinated.
Currently, the decision on whether or not to take the vaccine is a personal choice and people must consent. Where an employer acts against an employee – who refuses the vaccine on the ground of any ‘protected characteristic’ – this may leave the company open to discrimination claims. If an employer dismisses an employee because they refused to be vaccinated, the employee could pursue a claim for unfair dismissal. 4. CLINICALLY VULNERABLE EMPLOYEES WHO HAVE NOT BEEN ASKED TO SHIELD
Employers should be having open discussions with their employees about the steps being taken to protect them, and PPE information and risk assessments provided.
Ultimately, employees refusing to return to work – either because of safety concerns or vulnerability if they contracted Covid – means employers can either furlough or allow the individual to stay home without pay.
5. PROTECTING EMPLOYEES’ MENTAL HEALTH
Pre- pandemic, mental health issues were an increasing concern in the care sector. The strain has magnified since March 2020 too, with people working in heavy, and hot, PPE all day long. High demands, combined with insufficient time also continue to be a challenge along- side dealing with clients, patients and deaths.
To address wellbeing, organisations have taken various steps which have included:
• Improved staffing levels wherever possible during peak hours
• Establishing a communication protocol for situations that could pose health and safety risks
• Promoting employee participation through meetings
• Improving relationships between colleagues and managers at work
• Establishing support groups and providing Employee Assistance
Programmes for counselling
• Adopting coping strategies.