How do you bring scared people back to work, after a Pandemic?

Henry Lee 13.05.2020

As we get closer to the end of lockdown, how do you start to bring a workforce that is undoubtedly scared back to the office, safely, productively and without leaving the business open to ER cases and lawsuits.

How can organisations safely reintroduce their employees to the workplace?

The past few months have been some of the hardest that most will have endured in their life times and unfortunately for some families, the Covid-19 Pandemic has resulted in the loss of life for loved ones.

But as we get close to the end of lock down, we all need to look at how to start to bring a workforce that is undoubtedly scared, shocked and in some cases grieving back to the office both safely and productively. All of this without leaving businesses that are desperate to get up and running again, without leaving themselves open to employee relations cases and lawsuits. 

In this article I want to look at fear against relative risk. Then make suggestions around how staff and employers should work together to achieve a new normal working environment.

Firstly let's look at how scared people really are:

How worried is the public?

In a poll by Ipsos MORI people were asked if they think the virus is a threat to them. 58% of 18-34 year olds, 70% of 35-54 year olds and 79% of 55+ year olds said “yes, they believe the virus is a direct threat to them.”

Now I want to look at this dispassionately and look at the data. 

Percentage deaths by age category

In the graph above just simply looking at the ONS data it is clear that individuals under the age of 44 are at a very low risk level of mortality, compared to others. I want to look at some of the numbers and make a rough estimate of the risk in comparison to other activities. In a recent paper released by the British Medical Journal it was estimated that about 78% of infections were asymptomatic (Data from China’s National Health Commission).

As of the 11th May there were 223,060 confirmed cases in the UK. If this only accounts for 22% of all tested and confirmed cases that have symptoms in the UK, it means that there could be an estimated 790,849 cases which were asymptomatic. So let's make the numbers a little easier, if we add the confirmed to potential asymptomatic number of cases, we get roughly 1 million cases in the UK. Of those 1 million, 32,000 people have unfortunately lost their lives, which gives a rough mortality rate of 3% across all cases. 

At this point I'm going to look at a specific age group to demonstrate the disproportionate fear and the risk of mortality after catching Covid-19. Let’s look at the 0-44 age category because this is the majority of the working population in the UK and has the biggest fear to risk imbalance. The UK population is split as shown below, outlined in data as of 2018.

Age Range data

If you take that percentage and assume that Covid-19 spreads through society and across all age groups evenly, you get the number of suspected total cases (1 million) divided by population percentage in each age category. 

Estimate case numbers

If you then look at the number of deaths of individuals under 44, which is 332 as of the 11th May, it gives a likelihood of an individual under the age of 44 of dying as 1 in 1683. This is about the same risk as dying from boxing.

The ONS has also reported that between 86-91% of individuals who have died have at least 1 underlying health condition. This means that in the 0-44 age category, of the 332 individuals who have died, 289-302 of these individuals had underlying health conditions, statistically speaking. This also means that only 43-30 people died who were considered healthy between the age of 0-44. If you then look at that against the suspected 559,000 cases in this age category, you get a mortality rate of 1-13,000 or 1-18,633. 

So lets create a rounded average of 1 in 16,000 healthy individuals are at risk. This is about the same as going on a hike in the mountains and dying.

Obviously if all 37 million people got the virus in the 0-44 age category in the UK and over 2,300 lives were lost unnecessarily this would be a travesty. But with infection rates below 1 and people taking the right precautions, individuals need to look at the risks and make their own minds up

If that figure is close to correct, then 58% of individuals being worried in the 0-44 age category seems completely disproportionate to the actual risk they are under: Over 1 in 2 are worried, but only around 1 in 16,000 healthy individuals are at risk.

It is undoubtedly the case that businesses want to get going again, the economy is under huge pressure and the quicker everyone can get up and running again, the better for everyone.

So what is HR’s role in this, how do you motivate and encourage productivity in a workforce ruled by fear? 

  • Firstly it is HR’s responsibility to understand the problem facing the workforce, look at it dispassionately and make an assessment on the data.
  • Make sure that individuals are well informed. I believe that most of the fear around Covid-19 is through the media, constant exposure to the situation and a lack of knowledge.
  • You can't motivate an individual whose life is governed by fear, so you have to help them overcome the fear through support and evidence based structures looking at the risk to them.
  • Motivation to undertake any activity is when the reward outweighs the risk and what HR can do is help workforces in this time of uncertainty understand the risks better by educating the workforce, so that people will feel comfortable and  will want to come back to work sooner.

There is a great saying that sums this up, “if you don't do anything nothing will happen”. Risks are everywhere and you need to assess them, then make a decision on the data as to whether that is a risk you are prepared to take. Personally I love hiking, the risk associated with it is acceptable to me. 

How do you bring your staff back to work safely when the fear of another outbreak is rife, while mitigating litigation risks to the business? 

  • Support government guidelines and make the office as safe a place as you can through policies. The best thing here I believe would be to over protect. Enforce social distancing at desks, introduce staggered work patterns, make face masks to be worn in the office mandatory, alcohol gel cleaning stations as you come in. Encourage the protection of higher risk individuals asking them to continue working from home. All of this might be overwhelming to think about, so if you are unsure about this, there are already individuals in the Health and Safety arena who are consulting on this. 
  • Educate your staff through training to help them best mitigate the risks to themselves and others in the workplace.
  • Supply the required PPE to your staff and educate them on how to use it - your staff are the most valuable asset, show them you care. 
  • Educate your staff about the benefits of coming back to work. People will be feeling isolated and stuck in odd situations, work can add a great routine to a day and a social environment.
  • Potentially look at bringing individuals back to the office on a part time basis, so that you create more space for social distancing. 
  • Look to allow heavily staggered working hours to again keep density low.

I would consider whether it is worth bringing individuals back to the office if you don't have to. If you have to work with a large number of invasive policy measures in place, will the office be a more productive environment than working from home? Obviously this is a consideration every business needs to look at individually, but if you are not following the guidelines above and you put staff members at an unnecessary risk and leave yourself over to litigation, is it worth it for a potentially minimal increase in productivity?

How do you treat staff equally if half are scared and half are not, while mitigating litigation risks to the business? 

This is a really hard question to answer. As a business you leave yourself open to issues if you discriminate toward individuals in a workplace.

  • Asking some individuals to come back to work before others dramatically increases their risk of catching the disease. Why should they take the risk over others? Incentivising here could be an option, some people might feel the risk is acceptable but why would you take a risk with no reward? Offering staff an increased wage in return for a waiver to the business for the risks from the disease, as long as all health and safety measures implemented by the business are appropriate and fully met, could be an option. 
  • Each individual has a different perception of personal risk and what is acceptable to them. Making a blanket decision for a business could cause extreme stress, anxiety and ultimately lead to increased sickness of some staff. Unfortunately, it does look like the Virus imposes different risks for different people, so you would have to make an assessment on each individual.
  • If you have the capability for staff to work at home but you ask them to attend work, you as an employer are directly asking them to take the risk and I believe that holds some liability, so making the right decision here is vital. 

In this situation, making recommendations rather than rules is safer as a business allowing for individuals to come back in their own time. Offering support throughout will demonstrate the business has done all it could to support the transition back to work for everyone and hopefully help mitigate litigation.

Conclusion:

Individuals need to understand the risk associated to themselves. If you have a health condition and are over the age of 44, you would probably do everything you can to avoid getting this disease. If you are under the age of 44 and are healthy, your risk is extremely low. Firstly, you have to catch the disease and if you are worried, wear PPE and wash your hands very regularly. But even if you do catch it, a 1-16,000 chance of death is no more than just living a normal life full of fun activities. 

If you're an employer I think you should offer the choice for individuals to come back to work when government guidelines suggest it's okay to do so, with a hard end date to work towards such as the end of 2020. This option has already happened at Google and Facebook. Higher risk individuals should be encouraged to continue to work from home, but also allowed to come to the office should they wish, the risks having been spelt out. 

Finally businesses should look at offering wider support if possible to those who have mental health issues arising out of situations brought on by the Pandemic. By doing all of the above we should be able to get 50/60% of the workforce back into the office safely and in the shortest amount of time, hopefully to kickstart 2020 again. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts and your plans for bringing individuals back to work?

Henry Lee's picture
Manager | HR Recruitment, London
henrylee@morganmckinley.com

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