Coronavirus: 8 Key Actions HR Should Take for COVID-19
Over the last few days, there have probably been a fair few water-cooler chats in your workplace about the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.
The outbreak is progressing rapidly across the world, so it’s vital that HR professionals respond quickly to the unique situation in your specific workplace.
Many governments worldwide are urging businesses and individuals to adopt social-distancing and self-isolation measures, limiting your contact with other people, to reduce the spread of the virus.
With that in mind, here's a short summary of the situation as it stands, followed by the 8 key actions that HR should take for COVID-19 to minimise disruption, reduce employee risk and maintain profitability.
COVID-19: what we know so far
COVID-19 emerged in China in December 2019. It’s a new virus from the coronavirus family, which includes the common cold, but also more serious illnesses like SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).
It’s not known for sure how the virus spreads, but similar viruses are spread in cough droplets.
Studies from China have shown that 80% of people with COVID-19 have mild cases of the illness, with 20% experiencing a more severe illness requiring hospital treatment. 1.2% of patients can show no symptoms at all.
The majority of patients recover in a few weeks. The World Health Organisation estimates that the new virus has a mortality rate of 3.4%, meaning that it kills roughly 3% of people that it infects. The elderly with pre-existing health conditions are at particular risk.
The symptoms of COVID-19 are very similar to that of the flu or cold, which makes diagnosing the condition difficult and impossible without a test. The most common symptoms are:
- A high temperature
- A cough
- Shortness of breath
If someone suspects that they may have COVID-19, it’s important that they do not take themselves to a hospital or GP surgery where they could infect others. Instead, they should call 111 for the NHS coronavirus service, or use the online questionnaire here. They, and the other people in their household, should then self-isolate for 14 days to reduce the risk to others.
Key actions that HR should take for COVID-19
1. Create an infectious-disease management plan
Creating a dedicated infectious-disease management plan to deal with COVID-19 will help your business to prepare for most scenarios and minimise disruption.
An infectious-disease management plan is essentially a collection of different policies related to the topic. It will usually cover subjects like:
- Mandatory reporting of employee exposure
- Quarantine or isolation policies for employees who are sick, or have been to affected countries
- Workplace shutdowns
- Employee travel restrictions
- Communications policies
Your organisation will need to establish a cross-functional emergency team too, to help coordinate the efforts. Setting up this plan will help to give a focus to your preparations.
2. Establish a home-working policy
The key to mitigating the impact of coronavirus on society is to slow its spread, or to ‘flatten the curve’. One of the most effective ways to do that is to self-isolate — to minimise your personal contact with other people.
When it comes to the world of work, self-isolation generally involves working from home. Home-working is also a useful way to minimise the impact of the coronavirus on your business, reducing the risk of the infection spreading among colleagues by keeping them away from each other.
A large proportion of jobs in most workplaces — especially offices — can be completed at home, so home-working makes a lot of sense, even outside of an epidemic scenario.
3. Keep employees in the loop
Nothing breeds panic and misinformation more than ignorance.
HR professionals have a duty to be honest with employees about what the impact of coronavirus is likely to be at their company, and transparent about the measures that they’re taking to reduce its impact.
Countering misinformation about COVID-19 is essential for promoting calm at work. You can do this by making sure that you base your judgments for action on evidence from reputable, verified sources like the World Health Organisation, the Government, or the NHS.
4. Have a plan to support parents if schools close
Under UK employment law, all employees have the right to request flexible working.
Whilst it’s true that there isn’t any legal obligation for employers to provide flexible working, in a serious, unexpected situation like this one, common sense suggests that employers are going to need to be reasonable and show flexibility when it comes to the work patterns of employees. This is particularly the case when it comes to employees with children.
If the outbreak worsens, schools will probably be closed. This will likely cause shortages of childcare services, as parents attempt to find someone to look after their children whilst they’re at work.
You’ll likely find that these employees will end up requesting emergency leave to cope with this situation, if you don’t have some form of flexible-working policy in place at the moment. This is unsustainable in the long-term, so it pays to create a sensible, flexible-working policy to support your employees.
5. Be flexible with older employees and employees with underlying health conditions
Every age group can catch COVID-19, but some groups appear to be more vulnerable to severe illness than others.
Those most at risk of severe infection from COVID-19 are the elderly, people with serious underlying health conditions, and people with compromised immune systems. If your workplace has any employees with these conditions, consider adopting a flexible approach right now by allowing them to self-isolate and work from home. This will help them reduce their risk of infection.
Don’t wait for the situation to get worse before putting in place measures which could help save someone’s life. Be proactive.
6. Establish hand-washing points/hand-sanitizer stations
Washing our hands with soap is vital when it comes to stopping the transmission of germs and reducing the risk of infection.
Hand-sanitizer is a useful way to temporarily clean your hands, but it’s not as effective as washing them the old-fashioned way with soap and hot water.
Ideally, you should wash your hands before you touch food or eat, after using the toilet, after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, and after touching any surfaces that any other people may have touched.
If you’re able to provide hand sanitiser – which is easier said than done due to massive global demand and panic-buying – establish hand-sanitising stations around your workplace at high-traffic areas such as entrances and exits.
7. Display hand-washing and hygiene information
We consider washing our hands a simple task, but to do it properly — so that it reduces the risk of infection — actually takes more work than you realise.
The NHS has excellent guidelines on the correct way to wash your hands — this is the method that medical staff use to prevent infections from spreading when they’re treating patients. Here’s a summary of the advice.
How to wash your hands
Aim to wash your hands for around 20 seconds, or the time it takes you to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice through.
- Wet your hands with warm water
- Apply soap to cover your hands
- Rub both of your hands together
- Rub the back of one hand and between the fingers. Repeat for the other hand.
- Rub your hands together and between the fingers
- Rub the back of your fingers against your palms on each hand
- Grip your thumb with one hand and rub in a rotational motion. Repeat for the other hand.
- Rub your fingertips in a circular motion on the palm of your other hand. Do the same with your other hand.
- Rinse your hands with water.
- Dry your hands thoroughly with a paper towel and turn off tap with it or your elbow.
It’s also vital to stress the importance of employees avoiding touching their faces. Viruses like COVID-19 enter your body through mucus membranes which are found in your nose and mouth. This means that every time you touch your face, you’re potentially letting a virus enter your body.
It only takes one microscopic microbe to cause an infection, so touching your face becomes dangerous during an outbreak.
Print off this guide and display it in important places around your workplace, particularly above sinks and places where employees can wash their hands.
8. Keep a cool head
Arguably, the most important action that HR professionals should take in the face of COVID-19 is to stay calm and keep a cool head.
By keeping a cool head, we don’t mean underestimating the seriousness of the situation — it is serious, and the lives of many people are at risk. Keeping a cool head means putting the virus in perspective, and realising that blind panic often causes more harm than good in the long-term.
We hope you’ve found this guide to key actions that HR staff should take for COVID-19 useful. By acting now, you can minimise the impact of coronavirus on your organisation and your colleagues – so don’t delay.
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