Employers, don’t let Corona Virus become the new ME!
Prior to Walker v Northumberland County Council  IRLR 35, managers were often sceptical about sickness absence attributed to a “bad back”. After the Walker case “Stress” became the new bad back, then we had “yuppie flu” which of course was ME or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
Yuppie Flu Oxford definition – yuppie flu, noun INFORMAL•DEROGATORY, noun: yuppie flu; noun: yuppy flu; plural noun: yuppy flus; noun: yuppy disease; plural noun: yuppy diseases; noun: yuppie disease. Another term for chronic fatigue syndrome.
In the 1980’s ME and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome were labelled “Yuppie flu,” a fashionable form of hypochondria, by Newsweek, later corrected. There were reports of people being referred to psychiatrists for non-existent illnesses that were all in the mind. Reports are telling us this is happening again as a consequence of COVID-19. People are being referred to psychiatrists again, for, again, symptoms that are all in the mind!
How will employers be influenced by the media?
We at LaunchPad Associates have our own story.
It is 14 weeks today since I first started with symptoms of Covid-19. The general public perception is that if you do contract this awful virus you are fine within 14 days, this is not the case for everyone. For the past 99 days I have been housebound and have only managed to escape from my bed/sofa during the last couple of weeks to sit in the garden. I am still suffering from shortness of breath and exhaustion but I managed my first walk outside last week around Wharton Park (just the flat bit though!).
My poor family have been through hell and back with hospital dashes, listening to me gasping for breath, watching me sleep around the clock and not knowing if I was going to come through the other end. This has been the most terrifying thing I have ever experienced and yet I still can’t hug my mam and dad – the one thing you really need when you are poorly. The girls have been so brave, they have been helping Richard with the cooking/cleaning as well as keeping me company. They are being homeschooled via video calls with Richard’s mam and my mam (I honestly don’t know what we would have done without you). Their schools have also been so understanding too. Richard has been working from home and is doing an amazing job of holding everything together for us, I couldn’t have got through it without him by my side. Our fantastic friends and family, local and in Oz have provided emotional support each day – I will never forget their kindness, love, concern and food deliveries.
It’s going to be a long road ahead for my little family – the doctors have said it could take me a year or more to get back to full strength. The number of long-term Covid sufferers are growing each day, I am in a support group that has over 10,000 people in exactly the same situation as me. There are hundreds of these support groups around the world so you can imagine how many people it has effected. Yet their stories are only starting to emerge in the media. We are the lucky ones who have managed to fight the virus and survive but there needs to be more research and understanding about the long term effects we are facing.
As a business owner you dread the thought of becoming ill as you are responsible for clients, contractors, pipelines and paying your own wages. I am so lucky to have my amazing business partner Beverly who has had to keep these plates spinning by herself since March. She has been a lifeline of support through laughter and tears every single day. Yesterday I started back at work for 2 hours (from home) which wiped me out for the rest of the day but it is a small step forward.
It is the first time I have posted about being poorly as I just haven’t had the physical or emotional energy. The thought of lockdown easing is terrifying me, yes we need to get the economy started again but everyone needs to be so careful. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.
Jo ❤️ – Facebook post – Jo Cameron 2 July 2020
What might employers face as lockdown is lifted?
This has been a bewildering and stressful time for everyone. Corona Virus seems to be impacting on patients differently, from hardly any symptoms at all to death. There are people recovering at home, others hospitalised, together with recovery being almost immediate, to patients suffering months on like Jo.
In our article on 5 June 2020 we gave employers tips to help them support staff returning to work. We highlighted the importance listening and communication to address fears. As we get closer to lockdown being completely lifted, and the Government intention to open schools for all in September, we know there are levels of anxiety.
So what might employers face?
- Fear and Anxiety
- Grieving staff who have lost a loved one or family member
- Those who have experienced Corona Virus
- Staff and managers who have not been touched by the virus
- Childcare issues for staff as schools remain closed
- Staff with caring responsibilities
- Mental Health issues
- Coughs, colds and Flu.
So what can HR and managers do?
Fear and Anxiety
In June we wrote about being clear on your return to the workplace strategy. Communicate clearly the plans, risk assessments, demonstrating you value their health and wellness. Where staff are reluctant to return, talk to them. Get an understanding of their fears and answer their queries.
Thinking ahead about staff who are shielding. It’s likely that their anxiety levels could be high. Put a plan together specifically for this part of your workforce. Think about communication with them. Ask about their thoughts and fears. Take them through the risk assessment you have planned for their return, in advance. Exercise your duty of care. Can the shielding staff member work in different area or from home? Are they afraid of public transport? Can you offer a parking space or pool car?
As in-house HR professionals for many years we have heard time and time again managers saying stress doesn’t exist just because they haven’t experienced it themselves. HR, gather your evidence to ensure they understand and treat their staff with compassion and respect.
We’re hearing children are having meltdowns, there are family arguments and splits. Staff may return with burnout, or dealing with emotional issues as an indirect result of COVID-19, causing change and turmoil. Do you have a domestic issues policy? What about Domestic Violence policy?
Gather information to sign-post staff to help and support.
Employers, don’t let Corona Virus become the new ME!
Obviously our hearts go out to our friends and colleagues when they lose a loved one. We know everyone responds differently to grief. Added to this funerals have been limited to close family only, mourners have been unable to comfort one another. We are yet to see the impact of this grief on longer-term mental health.
Maybe it’s time to review compassionate leave policies. Look into courses or talks to help managers understand grief. Make sign-posting available to staff and their colleagues. It’s worth considering the impact on close colleagues and offering support to them. The obvious, support the bereaved with counselling.
Recovering from Corona Virus
Like us, you may find staff facing a need for a phased return to work. Our Jo is still suffering physically and mentally from corona virus 100 days on.
You may have staff who experienced corona virus to different degrees. This is where conflict can occur and accusations of exaggeration or taking advantage of the situation. It’s important to remember many medics are baffled by this disease. In fact Jo experienced this with a duty doctor at A&E. One doctor was amazing, the other making her feel a fraud and hypochondriac.
If you have a staff member in a similar situation to Jo and many others, please believe them. Don’t let this become the new stress, bad back or ME.
Introduce awareness sessions. Research Corona Virus and share information. Just because we don’t understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Make sure that everyone understands how this pandemic has impacted on lives.
If you have healthcare offer physio or occupational therapy. If you have gym membership maybe introduce rehabilitation time dedicated to personal training. Organise a health week where all staff focus on nutrition, fitness and mental health.
For people like Jo, they have done their rehabilitation at home. They haven’t had hospital rehabilitation with physiotherapists or occupational therapists. Doctors have told Jo her body did the job of the ventilator and those recovering at home are taking longer to recover than those who were in hospital with respiratory support. At this stage we only know she has Post Viral Syndrome and it could take 3 to 18 months.
Make adjustments to workloads and patterns. Can they do a different kind of work? Most of all talk, listen and understand.
Those with no experience of Corona Virus
Even though we’ve experienced a pandemic there are still people who have not been touch by corona virus. We say educate them. Particularly if your COVID-19 illnesses are in the minority. It’s lack of understanding that leads to a culture of labelling and stigma. This can then lead to allegations of bullying and victimisation. These things are always difficult to manage, particularly where workloads are high and colleagues believe people get over the virus in a week or two. They then feel let down and taken advantage of.
Look at workloads. Have a strategy for supporting colleagues. How are your staff featured in the Business Continuity Plan? Do you have one?
The key here is education. Understand the impact of corona virus yourself and raise awareness.
Develop a supportive and understanding culture to avoid becoming dismissive and accusing. That said, we are too long in the tooth not to know that people will take advantage of the situation. Not everyone is conscientious. We can have lazy people in our businesses, however, you’ll know those people. Those who are raising issues or not coming back to work, and it’s unusual, either have a genuine issue or it’s a symptom of something else. Work with that person to find out more.
Employers, don’t let Corona Virus become the new ME!
We’re looking at a further 8 weeks until the schools return. Childminders are still closed and grandparents are still shielding or self isolating, so childcare may be a challenge for some staff. So what can you do?
You can keep them on furlough leave for as long as possible, obviously the changes in contributions come in from 1 August.
Employees are entitled to 8 weeks parental leave per child, you could make use of that.
They may make a flexible working application which we’d advise to be considered seriously.
Obviously they will have accrued annual leave during lockdown so this could be a great solutions for shorter term issues, and beneficial to both parties. You could also offer unpaid leave, a career break or sabbatical.
It’s likely those with caring responsibilities will be supporting vulnerable groups. Their fears are likely to relate to infection and transmission of COVID-19. It may be you consider the suggestions above. In addition to that, think what a great employer might do. How could you support them to source carers or support? Talk them through the risk assessment. Encourage them to talk through the risk assessment with those they care for to help put their mind at rest too.
Happy, Confident Family ~ Happy, Confident Staff!
If people do go on holiday there’s quarantine to think about. Will this be authorised absence or unauthorised? Paid or unpaid? What about your sickness policy? We’d suggest updating it.
Will you want them to self isolate? Think about your duty of care to staff. We would get staff to self isolate, certainly over the next few months.
We’ve written lots on this over the past few months. We’ve also produced an e-Book with resources. This is so important. As we said earlier COVID-19 has impacted on people in very different ways. You may have people returning to work in a completely different frame of mind to pre-lockdown.
Acknowledge this. HR professionals, provide managers with the tools to be proactive. Sign-posting to sources of help is invaluable. Have a mental wellness plan in place.
We’re hearing lots of clients encountering staff who have been furloughed at the start of lockdown returning with confidence issues. It makes sense really. Think about maternity leave or periods of long term absence, people are daunted by the return.
Let’s face it, after two weeks annual leave our stomach churns at the thought of returning!
Coupled with that, people are fearful for their jobs. Why not get your CEO or MD to either gather staff together to give an update, or at least, for bigger organisations, make a video. Welcome people back, give them a business update and then demonstrate you understand the impact of lockdown. Line managers offer Q&A time.
Why not have a “re-induction” event.
Most of all listen, believe, and increase awareness. Employers, don’t let Corona Virus become the new ME!
Coughs, Colds and Flu
At the time of writing, there is no guidance relating to action to be taken if someone presents later in the year with coughs, colds or flu. I was speaking to someone from Public Health last week and the key points I took away:
- There is no plan for isolating once corona virus is under control and we’re back to work;
- At the moment there’s track and trace;
- There will be illness as a result of lockdown as a result of people being isolated (like first day at school, university etc.) until we build up our immunity again; and
- There will be anxiety when people identify with cold and flu symptoms.
Make a plan now and communicate it. Look ahead and think about how these things will be managed.
I think this our longest article ever! We’ve tried to get our plea – Employers, don’t let Corona Virus become the new ME! across but also to add value by offering ideas. If you’re worried about getting people back to work, or want to use this as an opportunity to change culture or develop a wellness strategy, contact us, this is our passion.