Staff problems after lockdown

First published in Independent Practitioner Today in June 2021

Doctor employers face ongoing staff management challenges as lockdown restrictions ease. Lucy Miles and Isobel Davis highlight some areas needing consideration. 

Managing holiday requests

Holidays within the UK are now permitted and international leisure travel may be allowed to resume this summer. 

Employers are likely to face an unusually large number of holiday requests for the spring and summer months, often with less notice than usual, since employees have not been able to book holidays in advance. 

Many employees have avoided using their holiday entitlements so far this year due to the restrictions, which means that employers are likely to face higher absence levels than usual as staff start to take more holiday than they might ordinarily. 

This could cause potential operational challenges for employers, who will need to balance business needs with holiday entitlements.

It will be important to proactively manage holiday entitlements where possible, and there are provisions within the Working Time Regulations 1998 which may assist employers where holiday requests need to be refused or where staff need to carry over more holiday than usual into the next holiday year. Employers may also wish to encourage workers to liaise with each other, spread out their holidays evenly across the leave year when they can, or alternatively request that employees take one or two longer blocks rather than several shorter periods if that is less disruptive.

How to welcome those shielding back to the workplace safely

Everyone who has been identified as clinically extremely vulnerable should now have been offered a Covid-19 vaccine, and the government is no longer advising that they do not attend the workplace, so it is anticipated that staff who have been shielding will start to return to work if they cannot work from home.

The first key step in being able to welcome back staff who have been shielding is a health and safety risk assessment. All employers are required by law to carry out assessments to identify risks to their employees whilst at work, and this is particularly important for vulnerable staff. Risk assessments should not be viewed as one off tasks but kept under review as government guidance is adapted and changed, and employers should ensure that they keep clear and accurate records of their ongoing risk assessments.

The second crucial aspect is taking time to plan and consult with employees. ACAS suggests listening and talking to staff about their work and how risks will be managed. This should involve communicating what measures have been and will be taken to reduce the risks and ensure the workplace is Covid-secure.

Consider long-term remote working

Aside from the difficulties it has caused, the pandemic has also resulted in a number of positive outcomes including improved productivity, reduced congestion and better air quality. For staff, advantages have included increased flexibility and the saving of commuting time and costs. Many people would therefore like to retain the ability to work from home in the long term. Employers are increasingly recognising that the general shift towards working more flexibly has benefits for businesses including happier staff and costs savings from needing less office space (or even none).

Employers should consult with staff about their views and consider all of the options and implications of the arrangements before implementing any significant or permanent changes to working practices. Having done so, if you are proposing to make changes that alter employees’ terms and conditions of employment, you should consider amending the employment contract to avoid any future disputes, and ensure that you have appropriate policies in place to govern the arrangements such as a flexible working / homeworking policy, health and safety policy, and data protection and information security policy.

Refusing to return or be vaccinated

If any employee refuses to attend the workplace for a health and safety reason and they are dismissed or subject to a detriment as a result, they could potentially bring certain claims in the Employment Tribunal such as unfair dismissal and whistleblowing. There are also real risks of a disability discrimination claim if the employee has a medical condition that could amount to a disability (and note, this can cover a wide range of medical conditions that are often not recognised as disabilities). It is vital therefore that employers actively conduct and document risk assessments, manage issues sensitively and consistently, and do all they reasonably can to implement adjustments before taking steps to insist employees return to the workplace.

Similarly, employers must be extremely cautious in managing issues which may arise in relation to employees having or not having the Covid-19 vaccine. There may be circumstances where it is legitimate to require staff to be vaccinated, but these will be relatively few and far between and dismissing an employee or subjecting them to a detriment for not being vaccinated could give rise to a whole host of potential legal claims.

If you experience difficulties with implementing returns to the workplace or managing staff issues arising in relation to the Covid-19 vaccine, we are available to provide support and advice.

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