Swine flu – top tips for employers

The government admits it can no longer contain swine flu, and has moved to the treatment phase, which will concentrate on managing the outbreak. The full impact on employers is yet to be felt in the UK, with many anticipating that the autumn will bring an increased number of cases.

Some have suggested that in a worst-case scenario, up to 75% of the workforce could be absent. Therefore, it is vital for employers to put measures in place to keep their businesses running while complying with their legal obligations and without compromising the health and safety of their employees.

Here are some top tips for planning for and coping with swine flu.

1. Put contingency plans in place now

The main difficulty facing businesses is that there are likely to be high levels of staff absence for a variety of reasons, including illness, caring for others, or travel bans/restrictions. In anticipation of this, employers should:

  • Consider investing in technology so as many key employees as possible can work at home

  • Consider options for other methods of communication rather than face-to-face meetings, eg video-conferencing, webcams, tele-conferences

  • Ensure that IT systems can cope with large numbers working remotely

  • Identify staff who have interchangeable and key skills, as well as considering back-up from external sources

  • Ensure that any staff who are required to carry out unfamiliar jobs are given appropriate training

  • Ensure that any emergency contact details of key staff and contact information for all staff is up to date and circulated

  • If employees are willing to work longer hours as a result of absences, ensure that the provisions of the Working Time Regulations are complied with, eg adequate rest breaks, signing an opt-out agreement

  • Investigate the availability and cost of medical schemes which offer employees fast access to anti-viral treatments such as Tamiflu.

2. Review and update your policies

Employers should review and update employment policies and procedures which may be affected and monitor any changes to official advice. These include:

  • Absence and sickness

  • Dependant leave

  • Flexible working/homeworking

  • Travel.

  • Ensure there is no discrimination in the way in which any of these policies and procedures are implemented.

3. Put in place measures to protect the health and safety of your employees

Employers are under a duty to take steps which are reasonably necessary to ensure the safety of their employees, and not subject them to unnecessary risks of injury. As part of this duty, employers should:

  • Carry out a risk assessment considering whether any factors make employees particularly vulnerable to infection – eg, high level of contact between people, or travel

  • Inform and update employees on the latest position and provide them with awareness training on the facts and the risks

  • Ensure training is given on hygiene issues to minimise the risk of spreading the disease, and encourage good hygiene practices* Consider other hygiene measures – eg, installation of antiseptic hand-gel dispensers, encouraging hand-washing, encouraging use of tissues, and ensuring thorough cleaning of all work surfaces

  • Put up signs to remind employees and visitors of their responsibilities.

4. Plan for and manage absence effectively

Dealing with high levels of staff absence, combined with health and safety obligations, means employers should try to reduce or prevent the spread of infection in the workplace by:

  • Promoting an environment where staff who feel unwell are not afraid to inform their employer and go home until they are well

  • Ensuring any absence/sickness policy explains how the employer will deal with someone who has flu-like symptoms at work or who has been exposed to someone who has or may have those symptoms. Also, decide how any such absence will be treated (paid or unpaid), and review any return-to-work procedures

  • Considering how to treat ‘worried well’ employees who refuse to come to work as they are anxious about the risks; raising awareness of the facts should minimise scaremongering. This can be a difficult issue to handle and should only be treated as a disciplinary issue where it is reasonable to do so

  • Considering how it may impact on staff with dependents, and being sensitive to staff needs while caring for family members

  • Considering how to treat those staff who are more vulnerable, such as pregnant employees, or those who have underlying medical conditions.

5. Ensure good communication with staff

Effective communication between management and staff about what the business is doing to prepare and why, as well as providing training and raising awareness, is very important. Employers should:

  • Keep employees/employee representatives informed about any changes to policies and procedures

  • Consider preparing a Q&A document for employees covering the main issues and detailing where they can get further information.

by David Green, partner and head of the employment and pensions service group, Charles Russell

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