‘Businesses must be vigilant on employee stress as lockdown eases’

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A leading employment lawyer has said that regardless of the government guidance on returning to work set to be announced on Sunday, employers will have to be aware of stress among returning workers.

Ranjit Dhindsa, head of employment, Fieldfisher, told Personnel Today: “My expectation is that government guidance will be principle based”, giving companies scope to tailor safety measures to their own needs. “I do think people will be worried and there could be issues if employers don’t recognise employee stress and fears‚” she added.

With this in mind it was vital that employers did not impose the same expectations that they did before the lockdown, said Dhindsa.

Essentially, any organisation with a good culture who looked at issues from the employee’s perspective should be fine, she added.

If not, businesses needed to be aware that there were a variety of legal routes available to employees unhappy at the situation at work. For example, people could resign because they felt the workplace was not safe, leading to constructive dismissal cases in employment tribunals. They could also claim on whistleblowing grounds, if they raised fears about safety and been ignored or effectively gagged.

There was potential for conflict in workplaces because people were more likely to be anxious and many may not be as patient as they normally would be, said Dhindsa. Because of fears over stigma, many people tended to hide their feelings. “This will be a problem if employers have the same expectations as they did in terms of targets and performance as they did before the lockdown.” It would then be up to HR and line managers to identify stress and anxiety in people, a task that may be made more difficult if HR and line managers are managing issues remotely or are depleted themselves.

Stress will be a problem if employers have the same expectations as they did in terms of targets and performance as they did before the lockdown

Dhindsa said there would need to be specific details on what safe working looked like. “In addition, will HR departments have to handle more sensitive health data for employees and do regular checks? Was the government going to mobilise HSE or another department to do inspections? If employers want to carry out Covid-19 tests, who is going to do it – will they be fully qualified medical professionals – and what are the data protection implications?”

Businesses have been ahead of the government in their thinking in terms of their planning, but they were waiting to see if their plans matched what the government guidance was, said Dhindsa.

Organisations would find that to open up a business is much more difficult than shutting it, “as we’re opening up to a new world with restrictions regarding health and safety, social distancing and mental health”.

Dhindsa added: “We’re urging our clients to not make rushed decisions but to plan first and do trials and test runs.” In this way, easing out of lockdown can be seen as a process, not an event.

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