Staff absenteeism has increased markedly over the past few months, with a recent survey by FirstCare reporting that it is running at 66% higher than normal. Below are our top tips to help employers cope with some of the issues which are likely to crop-up over the coming months.
  • What does your sickness absence policy say? There is probably no need to update your policy merely to deal with swine flu, but you should make sure you are familiar with the sickness absence notification procedures, how much (if any) paid sick leave employees are entitled to, and your own processes for monitoring absence.
  • Communication is key. Despite huge media coverage, it is unwise to assume employees know what to do. If you have not already done so, it is recommended that your promptly remind all staff of their responsibilities under your sickness absence policy and advise them of any new requirements for dealing with swine flu. In particular,
    • Notify employees of their own obligations, such as maintaining good personal hygiene, remaining vigilant for signs of flu, and staying at home if they develop signs of swine flu until their medical adviser confirms they can return to work.
    • Advise them of the symptoms of swine flu, so they know what to look out for.
    • Provide them with details of the National Pandemic Flu Service (http://www.direct.gov.uk/pandemicflu), and similar sources of information and help such as NHS Direct.
Similar communications should be sent on a regular basis and updated as the pandemic develops and its impact on your business changes.
  • Consider changes to working practices. Employers have a duty to provide a safe place of work and a safe system of working to all staff. What changes should you be making to comply with this health and safety obligation in the face of swine flu?
    • Travel which is non-essential, particularly to places with high levels of swine flu such as Mexico and the USA, could be restricted. 
    • Is it practicable to have particularly vulnerable employees, such as pregnant women, working remotely? 
      • There is no obligation to allow pregnant women to work from home in this climate, but a reasonable employer should at least consider the option as part of its duty to conduct a risk assessment. 
      • Employers must make reasonable adjustments for employees who are disabled under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and this may well include allowing disabled employees to work from home if their underlying medical condition puts them at greater risk.
      • In any event, limiting the number face-to-face meetings is recommended.
    • Where flexible working arrangements, including home-working, are introduced, decide whether this should be a permanent or temporary arrangement and make sure it is recorded in writing. The written agreement can deal with other issues relevant to home-working such as data protection, protecting confidential information, as well as those under health and safety legislation and the Working Time Regulations.
    • Can training and social events be pushed-back until the pandemic is over, or will this be seen by staff as an over-reaction?
    • Provide anti-bacterial hand gel and soap, and introduce more frequent cleaning of your premises – particularly of door handles/lift buttons and the like.
    • Is it feasible to offer vaccinations?
  • Be firm – It may be necessary to investigate and, if appropriate, commence a disciplinary process (complying with the Acas Code) to deal with any employees that refuse to comply with their employer’s lawful and reasonable instructions (for example, by attending the office despite having flu), or who refuse to attend the office purely because they do not want to risk catching swine flu, or who falsely claim to have swine flu in order to have paid leave.
  • Time-off for dependents – Employees are entitled to reasonable unpaid time off to care for dependents under section 57A, Employment Rights Act 1996. This might apply for example when an employee needs to care for a dependent who becomes ill with swine flu. Alternatively, if the employee’s carer (which could include school/holiday club) is unable to look after the child, then the employee may need time off to look after their child until alternative arrangements are made.
  • Review your business continuity plan. We have seen from the way swine flu has spread in schools that one infected person can quickly cause a number of others to become unwell and therefore absent from work. If your business is badly affected by swathes of employees absent on sick leave, will your business continuity plan assist? It is advisable to review your plan and ensure that it deals appropriately with pandemics. In particular, focus on communication and consider training employees in other areas so that your workforce is dynamic and flexible.
Aron Pope is an employment and HR lawyer at Fox Williams LLP. Aron can be contacted on 020 7614 2640 or apope@foxwilliams.com.
 

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