Swine flu warning for vulnerable employees

Employers must ensure they are protecting members of the workforce who could suffer from more serious consequences of catching the swine flu virus.

Pregnant women and those members of staff with a history of serious health issues should be carefully monitored and alternative working arrangements should be put in place, should the virus be suspected to be present within their working environment.

Rachel Heenan, partner at law firm Beachcroft, said: “Employers have more of a duty here to those that are vulnerable, so those that are known to be pregnant or are known to have a medical condition.

“Employers should consider having a plan in place for these employees. Do we need to have [face-to-face] meetings? Do we need to cancel travel plans? You almost need to audit staff and once you have this knowledge, protect them or change the way they work.”

According to the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), HR must lead the way and ensure details on swine flu and various procedures are communicated to staff.

Ben Willmott, senior public policy adviser at the CIPD, said: “I think HR should ensure that all employees understand the risks. If there are implications for certain individuals, ensure that the information is available.”

Many organisations still do not have plans in place to deal with the spiralling illness, and may not take any action until their own workers are hit.

Only one-third of those voting in Personnel Today‘s news barometer last week thought their organisation was fully prepared.

Tim Hill, a partner at law firm Eversheds, said: “Staff welfare is a legal obligation on all employers, alongside the more recognised areas of health and safety in the workplace. There is a difficult balance to be struck between supporting an individual who is absent through illness and looking after the welfare of others still at work if, for example, an individual feels under pressure to keep working given the tough economic climate.”

The British Engineering Manufacturing Association (BEMA), said that many of its members have taken little notice of the suggested procedures which have been sent out.

David Dye, marketing and training executive at BEMA, explained: “If swine flu escalates, we’ll start to receive calls on a regular basis asking what the best course of action is. There is a thought process of: ‘Well it’s not in my area now, so it won’t happen’.”

Coming months will create absence headache for HR

The swine flu pandemic could trigger a huge absence management headache for HR departments across the UK, with official government figures predicting workforce absence rates of 9% and 12% by August and September respectively.

As well as many employees taking annual leave over the summer, HR will have to deal with increased staff sickness, working parents staying at home to look after ill children, and bogus claims from employees abusing a lenient ‘stay away’ approach.

Professor Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser at manufacturers’ body the EEF, said: “The issue of abuse is a realistic one, and I think that some employees may look to do that.

“Employers will have to trust staff, because they cannot insist that somebody goes and sees their doctor when the government is advising the general public not to.”

Flexible working arrangements that allow staff to carry out work from home, or interact with colleagues via the internet, could be key to managing the potential absence crisis, added Kahn.

“Companies need to look at their sickness absence procedures and consider how to make them flexible, because if employees have children, they are obviously going to want to be at home looking after them,” he explained.

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