Last week, the government said that a fifth of the UK workforce could potentially be off sick as the coronavirus spreads through society.
It's a prospect that seems more and more likely as businesses and agencies have been sending their people away from the office to work from home.
Anxiety levels in the UK are rising and clearly there's no room for complacency. But barring "stay calm", what is the advice for agency leaders?
What's the best source of advice?
The sheer volume of guidance available online can be overwhelming but, according to wellbeing organisation NABS, an important source of information for employers is the government.
"Knowing what to do about coronavirus can be worrying, especially because it’s out of our control," says NABS.
"However, we can help to inform and protect ourselves as much as we can by following the government guidelines and also those set out by your employer."
Meanwhile, People Management, which is published by C&IT's owner Haymarket on behalf of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), has created a comprehensive employer's hub covering everything for talent management people.
What does the law say on my business and my employees' rights?
According to Shilpen Savani, an employment lawyer at Gunnercooke, the law is "not fully equipped for dealing with the speed and unique risks presented by a pandemic of this nature".
"Although the government is working hard to stay ahead of the breakout and is preparing for eventualities, there is little additional support in the workplace in terms of benefits," he explains.
"This means much will depend on the contract in place with your employees, supported by precautionary measures and a sensible use of discretion. Failing to manage these things effectively could lead to a variety of employment claims."
What about freelancers?
Unfortunately, freelance staff are mainly unprotected if they don’t have contracts, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be helped, Savani said.
He continues: "They have a right to paid holiday based on hours worked, but they don’t ordinarily qualify for statutory sick pay. That said, there are reports on Twitter of ill freelance staff attending their jobs, as many are afraid of the financial implications. So be vigilant, reminding everyone of their responsibility to the wider community (and work-from-home options).
"Maybe there is the possibility of partial, or full, payment of the freelancers’ daily rates? This kind of generosity at a time of need can strengthen the relationship between a business and its freelance resource pool. The government has also announced easier access to universal credit for self-employed workers and declared that all workers who are required to self-isolate will temporarily qualify for statutory sick pay."
How can an employer help minimise exposure to the virus in the workplace?
The simple answer is hygiene. People Management cites experts who say that HR and facilities departments should be spearheading moves to ensure high standards of cleanliness and hygiene in the workplace to help stop the virus from spreading.
What happens if a staffer tests positIve or is told to self-isolate?
They "must be excluded from the workplace immediately", Savani says. "If the employment contract provides for enhanced sick pay, they should qualify for this, failing which they should receive statutory sick pay, currently payable at a rate of £94.25 per week.
"But what if the suspected employee is asymptomatic or just wants to pursue general medical advice to self-isolate? This person is unlikely to qualify for sick pay at all, unless the employer is willing to pay the employee on a discretionary basis."
How do I cope mentally if I'm self-isolating?
For many people, being quarantined at home is a frighteningly lonely prospect. NABS suggests warding off loneliness with technology.
"This is the time to reach out to friends and colleagues; even a five-minute WhatsApp chat or video call can help to make you feel more connected to the outside world," the body said.
How do I manage staff travel?
Many companies have put a stop to business travel and travel to other countries is becoming less viable as flights are cancelled and countries such as the US ban foreigners from their borders. Some businesses have gone as far as dissuading people from holding face-to-face interviews, while others have quizzed their people about plans to travel for leisure.
The CIPD suggests that organisations advise against travel to affected areas for obvious reasons, while other HR experts have urged businesses to be transparent based on how they would respond to different travel situations.
How can I help alleviate staff anxiety?
Understanding the risks and empathising those more prone to worry is crucial. Listen to people, reassure them and consider carefully whether or not a staff member has the right to stay away from work.
NABS points out that communication is vital – keeping managers, employees and colleagues in the loop on a practical basis. But just as – if not more – important is supporting people on an emotional level.
"Whenever possible, share when you’re feeling anxious or unwell and let others know what you most need and how they can best help you," the charity advises.
Managing one's own anxiety should also be a consideration, NABS adds.
"If you suffer from anxiety, especially health anxiety, coronavirus may well tap into this. Find somebody to talk to, whether that’s a trusted friend, mental-health first-aider, ally or advocate at work."
There is no simple answer and the stark reality is that businesses are going to be hit hard. Clearly, agency leaders should be thinking about the myriad ways in which coronavirus might impact their business, spanning employee contracts and supply-chain issues. HR experts have suggested forming a contingency team who can take decisive action should the crisis worsens.
How do I deal with closing down my agency?
The best advice probably comes from someone who has had to do just that. Jess Greenwood, global chief marketing officer at R/GA, which has shut all of its global offices, posted a string of tweets about "how to crisis-manage a 2,000-person company", describing the process as "an education in what’s most important to people".
Given the response to her initial tweets, she compiled a "crisis management 101" (see below).
When people all around you are losing their heads, how do you keep yours?
NABS stresses that employers and their people should recognise that worries, "though troubling, are thoughts and not facts".
"You may be worried about the implications for your work, or concerned for any vulnerable relatives or friends. It’s important to find a way of putting these worries into perspective," it says.
"What often helps is talking through your concerns with a trusted friend or colleague, along with exploring ways you’ll manage."
This article was originally published on Campaign.
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