What do I do if staff won’t come back into work?

Kate Palmer - HR Advice and Consultancy Director

July 27 2020

Early July saw thousands of employees go back to work under strict new safety measures.

But despite the best efforts of business owners, many workers fear the risk of catching coronavirus is still too high. And as a result, some are refusing to return.

So, what rights do employers like you have here? Can you discipline someone for staying at home? And how can you encourage staff to get back to work?

Let’s find out…

The laws on absences

Normally, you can discipline or dismiss your worker if they refuse to attend work. This is because unauthorised absences count as a breach of contract. Simple.

But current circumstances are far from normal. So much so that even the law is unclear. 

Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 protects workers who leave work, or refuse to return, when they have a reasonable belief there’s a ‘serious or imminent danger’ to their safety.

The question is, would COVID-19 class as ‘serious or imminent danger’ under Section 44? There’s no clear answer, and it will vary from person to person.

You don’t need to pay workers who refuse to return. But it’s going to be hard to force them to come back when they’re worried about their safety. If you discipline or dismiss someone who feels endangered, you could risk a tribunal claim and a hefty pay-out.

Instead, let’s look at ways you can encourage them to get to work…

Involve staff in risk assessments

To reopen your workplace safely, you’ll need to have updated your risk assessment to include coronavirus risks and hazards. This means looking for ways the virus might spread at work, and then getting rid of the risk or controlling it so transmission is unlikely. 

But you might want to ask staff if there are any specific safety steps they’d like you to take.

For instance, some might feel safer if their shifts start later, so they can avoid cramming onto public transport at rush hour, or to stagger break periods to free up communal spaces.

Getting staff involved in your risk assessments helps to demonstrate that you’re taking their concerns seriously. And it gives them more control over the environment they work in.    

Share your safety measures with staff 

Once your new risk assessment is complete, and all safety steps are in place, make sure you share the results with your workers to reassure them that your workplace is a safe place to be. 

You could do this by sending them a paper copy of the assessment, or even shooting a short smartphone video of your workplace so they can see the safety steps in action.

If your workers can physically see the changes you’ve made, they’ll feel even more confident about coming back to work.

Support the mental wellbeing of your employees

The coronavirus pandemic has been a scary experience. 

If your workers weren’t worrying about their own health, they’ll have worried about a high-risk friend or relative. They’ll have also seen constant news reports on recessions and redundancies. Some may have even spent lockdown on their own.

To help your workforce feel better about returning to work, and their mental health in general, you may want to offer an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).

An EAP gives your workers access to 24/7 telephone advice, face-to-face counselling and online tools to help them stay happy and healthy.

EAPs can bring big benefits to your business, too. Studies show that an EAP can reduce mental health-related absence levels by as much as 45% and improve productivity by as much as 8%.

To learn more about how an EAP can benefit you and your workers, visit Peninsula’s guide to EAP & employee wellbeing services today.

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