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Infection Control in the Workplace
Should employers encourage germs to stay at home?

Anybody who has regularly worked in an office or similar work environment will know how easily colds and other respiratory illnesses can spread amongst colleagues.  You may have experienced that feeling of inevitability when a colleague comes into work with a streaming cold, thinking to yourself “great, I just know I am going to get that”.  However, you may also have experienced feeling that you need to go to work yourself when you were unwell – perhaps because you were worried about letting down colleagues or customers, or perhaps because you were anxious about the financial implications of time off sick.

For much of the Covid-19 pandemic to date, government measures have required people to self-isolate if they had Covid-19 symptoms or had tested positive.  As such, for the past two years, the sight of the unwell colleague coughing and sneezing their way through the day has become less common.  However, this guidance ended on 1st April 2022, meaning that individuals now are responsible for deciding whether they should stay at home or not.

So, should employers encourage employees who are unwell to stay at home rather than spreading “germs” to their colleagues?  If so, how can employers best go about this?

When government restrictions were in place at different points in the Covid-19 pandemic, employees who could work from home were required to do so.  As such, many people are set up for this, in terms of having the right technology, space, etc.  If somebody feels well enough to work, but thinks they may be contagious, where it is possible for them to work from home, it may be beneficial for employers to encourage this.  A clear policy so that people know the expectations before they become ill can be helpful.

Of course, working from home is not feasible in all jobs.  As such, we have seen a number of businesses that we work with introduce in-work measures for people who have mild symptoms such as mask wearing, social distancing, and increased use of wipes and hand gel.

However, working from home and in-work measures do not address another important issue – people working when they are not really well enough to do so.  NHS inform says that for flu:  “The best remedy is to rest at home, keep warm and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.”.  Whilst some people may genuinely feel well enough to work with mild symptoms, many others may be pushing on with work (at home or otherwise), when their recovery would be aided by rest.

There can be a number of factors that can lead to people feeling that they need to work when they are not well enough.  These can include:

  • Unrealistic workload demands, potentially coupled with a lack of management support (e.g. “I’m sorry you aren’t well, but we are going to need that done by the end of the week, and I’m too busy to help”);
  • Unchecked workplace culture (e.g. “So-and-so is off work again  – what a baby, it’s only a cold”);
  • Unreasonable attendance standards (e.g. “more than two absences in any twelve month period will automatically lead to formal capability or disciplinary proceedings”);
  • Concerns about sick pay (e.g. “I am only entitled to SSP, so if I take time off I won’t be able to pay the bills this month, and my employer won’t even let me take holiday instead.”)

By seeking to address these factors where possible, employers can help to reduce the number of people working when they are not well enough to do so, and potentially bringing their “germs” to work and sharing them with the team!

A final note:  we have received queries from a few businesses in recent months asking if they are allowed to send employees home if they have tested positive for Covid-19, because they do not want other employees to catch it.  If an employer wishes to send somebody home from work because they are concerned about their health and that it may risk harm to the individual or others, then medical suspension may be an option

However, as there are no longer government measures in place regarding self-isolation, if an employee has presented themselves at work and is saying that they feel well enough to work, and the employer wishes to medically suspend them (i.e. send them home), then the employee will be entitled to full pay.  As such, employers should consider their approach to this carefully, as a well-intentioned change of policy to say “You must stay away from work if you have symptoms of Covid-19” may have significant financial implications.

The ViewHR team are experienced in supporting employers to develop sickness absence policies and management approaches that support employee wellbeing whilst also managing sickness absence levels.  If you are an employer and would like support with this, please contact us today for an initial discussion.