The rollout of the Covid and flu vaccination schemes a month earlier than planned this year may cause some concern about the possible return of Covid to the workplace. However, although the early rollout is just a safety precaution, it is a good time to review ways for employees to stay healthy and minimise sick leave during flu season and a possible resurgence of Covid.
Repealed Changes To Employment Law
At the height of the pandemic the Government ordered millions to work from home and directed many businesses and schools to close. They also implemented several legal changes. These included the requirement for individuals to self-isolate when testing positive for Covid or displaying symptoms, the waiving of waiting days for statutory sick payments for Covid self-isolation, and mandating many front-line health and social care workers to receive a Covid vaccination.
The Government has repealed these changes or ended the schemes operating them. Statutory sick payments have returned to normal and the waiting period for sickness absences reintroduced. One change currently still in place is that which allowed annual leave to be carried over, for up to two years, where an employee could not take it because of the impact of the Covid pandemic. However, enough time has passed since the lifting of restrictions for this to be unlikely to apply now. The Government has suggested in consultation it will amend the Working Time Regulations 1998 and repeal this too.
Restricting The Spread Of Viruses In The Workplace
To keep their staff safe, many employers have made it a rule for employees to let them know if they test positive for Covid. The employee must remain at home until they test negative or take extra precautions at work if they continue to come in. They may have to follow safety measures like wearing a mask, social distancing and regularly sanitising their work area.
As we approach autumn and the winter flu season, it’s crucial to implement workplace practices that will reduce the spread of viruses within the workforce.
There are several steps that employers can take to prevent the transmission of Covid, flu and colds in the workplace. These include:
- reminding staff to be vigilant about hygiene in the workplace, particularly regular, thorough handwashing.
- ensuring hand sanitiser is available, particularly at entrances and high traffic areas.
- social distancing between employees and others in the workplace.
- good workplace ventilation.
- encouraging eligible employees to have Covid and flu vaccine injections through the NHS.
- encouraging employees to work full time or partly from home, if possible.
- introducing additional steps, including face masks.
It is also advisable to remind employees what they need to do to follow these steps and why. It’s important to have policies in place for dealing with illnesses and to educate employees on what to do if they become sick. This should include a reminder to employees of the problems of presenteeism, namely an employee attending work when they are too unwell to be there. An unwell employee who insists on working can experience stress and burnout, and for those who are office or site-based, it can also increase the risk of the illness spreading through the workforce.
If hybrid working has become an option for a business, it would make sense to use this in the event an employee is well enough to work but could pass an illness on to others. When hybrid working is an option, an employee can work from home temporarily if they are sick with Covid or another virus, and it won’t affect their ability to do their job. Preparing resources and systems now means there will be time to make arrangements, like working from home, if necessary. If an employee does begin working from home employers still have the same health and safety responsibilities as for any other worker.
It is also advisable to remind line managers of their role in controlling and managing these situations and to ensure they have a good understanding of the steps they will need to take, should it become necessary.
Employers could also choose to offer all staff a flu vaccination through an occupational health provider. Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS England Medical Director, has said that vaccinations are our best defence against flu and Covid. Absorbing the cost of these could reduce the risk of far larger costs from high levels of staff absence, which would affect productivity and increase the need for temporary staffing.
The Latest Information
The latest Government advice for reducing the spread of respiratory infections, including Covid, in the workplace is available online and in pdf format. If you want to be up to date on the prevalence of Covid and seasonal flu, the UK Health Security Agency publishes a weekly flu and Covid surveillance report.
Staff sickness rates usually show a significant increase during the autumn and winter months. This is often because of seasonal cold and flu viruses. Covid has never gone away and new Covid variants continue to emerge. Other viruses and illnesses become more prevalent over the approaching winter months. To reduce absences businesses must be ready to respond quickly if a contagious illness spreads among their staff.