Considerations for Employers thinking of returning Employees to the Workplace
Michelle McDonagh, Senior HR Client Relationship Consultant, Adare Human Resource Management
Following the Government recent announcement lifting most of the Covid-19 restrictions, particularly clearing the way for a return to the workplace, there is a renewed focus on absence management and sick leave policies. Absence management and sick leave absenteeism can be complex issues for Employers at the best of times. But the additional considerations stemming from sick leave and absence due the ongoing health crisis should be treated with caution to balance Government guidance public health advice and importantly Employee discontent.
In the UK, it was estimated that three million people were off work sick in the first week of 2022 . Here in Ireland, a survey by Retail Excellence found that a quarter of retailers have had to close their business for a period of time or reduce trading hours as a result of Covid-related staff shortages .
So for employers thinking about bringing employees back to the workplace, here are some considerations to bear in mind.
Updating Covid-19 Response Plan & Suspected Case Response Plan: A review of both Response Plans in line with the latest Return to Work Safely Protocols, published on 31st January, should be carried out, particularly updating new guidance around close contacts and isolation timelines. Employers should also amend existing sick leave policies in order to address absences arising out of out of Covid-19 and be mindful of the impending Sick Leave legislation and any impact it may have to existing policies.
The Plans should include up to date information on the symptoms of the virus and its variants, the measures that will be taken in the event that an Employee contracts the virus, the steps and notification procedures employees must follow when absent due to Covid-19 or a suspected case of Covid-19 and the protocols around certified/ self-certified sick leave procedures.
The Protocols specify a requirement of addressing mental health and well-being. Therefore, it is important that organisations continue to ensure robust measures are in place in order to minimise the likelihood of employees experiencing workplace stress upon their return to work, especially in the context of a Covid related illness.
Sick Leave Payment Procedures: Covid-19 Enhanced Illness Benefit Payment provides for an enhanced payment of €350. The benefit of the enhanced scheme is that the ordinary requirement of a 6-day waiting period does not apply to those who are eligible for receipt. The parameters of this scheme should be set out for employees’ information and information on the eligibility criteria should be sourced from the relevant government department to accommodate any public health guidance.
Managers Role in Absence Management: Managers have a critical role to play in supporting Employees whilst out of the workplace and ensuring that appropriate steps are taken to facilitate a successful return. Ongoing training and support are vital in order to equip Line Managers with the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively deal with issues that arise in this area. Consideration should be given to the involvement of occupational health, or any other additional supports, at certain stages of sick leave absences particularly around Covid-19.
Processing Personal Data: Management of absences especially those related to Covid-19 may include steps that involves the processing of personal data, including in many cases sensitive, ‘special category’ personal data (such as data relating to health). Measures taken in response to the pandemic involving the use of personal data, including health data, should be necessary and proportionate and as indicated by the Data Protection Commission the processing of vaccine data is unlikely to be necessary or proportionate in most employment contexts.
While employees are not obliged to provide personal medical information in the main, volunteering information relating to vaccine status can still be viewed as an imbalance of power and therefore should not be processed. In particular employees should not be asked to consent to the processing of vaccine data as this consent is not likely to be freely given. Therefore, the processing of vaccine data will require a specific set of circumstances underpinned by a legitimate reason other than consent.
Conclusion: Effective absence management should be on the agenda for all HR Practitioners, particularly as we continue to deal with the impact of Covid-19. Employers must ensure that clear policies, practices and procedures are in place to deal with Covid-19 absences.
It is also important to ensure that recording and monitoring of attendance levels is completed in order to measure and evaluate the level and nature of sick leave absence within an organisation. Analysis of sick leave absence data absence can occur at an organisational level in order to gain an understanding of the overall rate of sick leave, and an individual level to allow identification of problem absence levels at an employee level. As the pandemic continues to manoeuvre through society these metrics will form an important part of strategic planning for Employers ensuring an Organisation is fit for future purpose.
Adare Human Resource Management is a team of expert-led Employment Law, Industrial Relations and best practice Human Resource Management consultants. For more information go to www.adarehrm.ie, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (01) 561 3594.