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Is Your Workplace Ready for a Return to Work?

Source: Benefits By Design Blog dated June 16, 2020




Only 8% of Canadian employers say that they’re fully prepared to reopen their workplaces when provincial governments lift COVID-19 restrictions. If your workplace isn’t among them, it may be time to begin thinking about your eventual return to work plan. 


Here's a list of the questions you will answers to below:

  • How will you ensure employees’ safety and minimize risks?

  • How will you handle employees who are uncomfortable returning to work?

  • Employee Have a Right to Refuse Unsafe Work

  • What is the Employer Doesn’t Deem the Work ‘Unsafe’?

  • What Can Employers do to Help Employees?

  • Offer Workplace Accommodations

  • Offer Unpaid Leave

  • Make Employee Safety and Wellbeing a Clear Priority

  • Should you have employees return to work at the same time?

  • Should you continue to meet with clients and customers face-to-face?

  • Should you make changes to your sick leave policy?

  • Do you have a response plan if someone tests positive for COVID-19?

  • What if an Employee Shows Symptoms?

  • What if an Employee Tests Positive?

  • What if an Employee’s Family Member Tests Positive?

  • What if my Area is Hit with a ‘Second Wave’?

  • Should you incorporate in-demand digital services such as telehealth into your benefits package?

  • How will you handle employees who do not physically or socially distance themselves at work?


How will you ensure employees’ safety and minimize risks?

This will require some creative problem solving and some reconfiguration about how work is done and will vary based on your workplace and your industry.

Here are a few ideas to keep in mind:

  • Reduce the need for face-to-face contact through continued work from home options and virtual meetings with employees and clients

  • If possible, install partitions and barriers between desks and consider moving them to be the recommended physical distance of six feet apart.

  • Increase the frequency of cleaning and pay particular attention to commonly used spaces (break room, water cooler, coffee machine)

  • Post signage on preventative measures and recommended guidelines, make additional information available for all employees.

  • Increase ventilation in the office.

  • If possible, recommend employees wear masks and gloves.

  • Encourage and enforce physical distancing of employees while in the office. Limit visits from guests, clients, and customers where possible.


How will you handle employees who are uncomfortable returning to work?

Even after the provinces lift restrictions and workplaces reopen, it’s understandable that some employees might be apprehensive about returning to their normal workplace

Employees Have a Right to Refuse Unsafe Work

It’s possible that employees will be apprehensive about returning to work and refuse to come in. Employees have the right to refuse unsafe work but it has to be based on a reasonable assessment of the risk. 

What if the Employer Doesn’t Deem the Work ‘Unsafe’?

The employer has to follow up on the employee’s refusal to return to work. If there is no basis for refusal, such as no cases or exposure to COVID-19 patients and the workplace has been cleaned and disinfected then there is no reasonable reason for the refusal to work. In this case, the employer can require the employee to return to work. However, an employer should try and work with the employee to bring them back to work, possibly through some form of accommodation via a work from home or other solution worked out between the two parties.

What Can Employers Do to Help Employees?

Employers have plenty of options to help employees through these difficult and unprecedented times, including:

Offer Workplace Accommodations

Workplace accommodations such as continued work from home, reduced hours or or alternate start and stop time are options that can help to ease employees’ anxiety about returning to work without resorting to dismissal. If employees are unable to return to work because of family status such as child care responsibilities, employers have a duty to accommodate them and offer a solution, such as working from home, for a temporary amount of time.

Offer Unpaid Leave

Managing employees’ anxieties and fears will be a large part of any return to work. You may want to consider offering employees the choice of unpaid leave if they are anxious about returning — each situation will differ based on the circumstances.

Make Employee Safety and Wellbeing a Clear Priority

Reassure employees that you have their health, safety, and wellbeing in mind as part of their return to work. Take the appropriate steps and precautions and maintain a constant flow of information as new developments come to light. This can go a long way to assuaging some of the fears employees have about returning to work.

Should you have employees all return to work at the same time?

The answer here will depend on your individual circumstances and may vary based on industry, but if possible, a phased approach to a return to work will be safer and easier to manage.

Bringing employees back to work in phases achieves a few important aims:

  • Reduces the burden on the employer in managing and performing routine cleaning

  • Mitigates the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus within an organization

  • Allows employees to volunteer to return to work if they wish, while still allowing those with apprehension about returning the option not to


Should you continue to meet with clients and customers face-to-face?

This will depend on the nature of your business, but if you can make do by substituting in-person meetings with virtual meetings and phone calls, it’s a good idea to do so. 

If your business relies on meeting with people face-to-face and you are set to reopen, there are certain steps you can take to minimize risks.

  • Limit the number of customers and clients at one time — whether that be entering an office environment, or sitting at a restaurant patio

  • Place hand sanitizing stations at entrances and exits and increase the frequency of cleaning of surfaces that are touched often (tabletops, desks, light switches, door knobs)

  • Encourage the use of masks and gloves amongst customers, clients, and employees

  • Maintain a physical distance of six feet between people as much as possible — in cases where this isn’t possible, masks and gloves are officially recommended by the Government of Canada


Should you make changes to your sick leave policy?

Depending on how comprehensive your current sick leave policy is, you may not need to make any changes to your policy. However, you may want to consider evaluating your sick leave policy to confirm it will provide enough in the event an employee has to undergo mandatory quarantine or is diagnosed with COVID-19. Here’s a few things to think about:

  • If your current sick leave policy covers a full work week of five days, what happens if an employee undergoes mandatory quarantine? Do you have work from home solutions?

  • What happens if they become diagnosed with COVID-19 and need to self-isolate and focus on recovery? Do you want your sick leave policy to cover them during this time?

  • If an employee is sick and is out of sick time, they may feel obligated or pressured to come into work, putting the entire workplace at risk. How will you handle scenarios like these?

Having a plan for those “what if” scenarios is key to proper return to work. For more information on those “what if” scenarios, keep reading!

Do you have a response plan if someone tests positive for COVID-19?

If your answer isn’t, “Yes, I would know exactly what to do”, you’re going to want to sit down and make a plan. In the event of an employee tests positive for COVID-19, a timely and appropriate response will be key to keeping your employees safe and reassuring them that you have their wellbeing in mind. Here’s a few things to think about!

What if an Employee Shows Symptoms?

If an employee is sick, the safest and best thing to do is for them to remain at home and not come into the workplace. If you are able to provide a work from home option, employees showing symptoms yet who are well enough to work, may safely do so from home.

To coincide with this, consider taking a look at your sick leave policy to ensure this will be possible. If employees are out of sick days and feeling unwell, they may feel obligated to come into work whilst sick, potentially putting the workplace at risk. How will you handle scenarios like this?

What if an Employee Tests Positive?

If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, you’ll need to jump into action quickly. A timely and appropriate response is incredibly important here to mitigate any potential spread of the virus and to deal with employees’ apprehension and fears. 

The employee should not be permitted to return to the workplace until they are free of the COVID-19 virus, a minimum of 14 days, and showing no signs for 24 hours after that.

The current advice from health authorities is that all employees who worked closely with the infected employee should also be removed from the workplace for at least 14 days to ensure the infection does not spread in the workplace.

What constitutes “closely” will depend on the workplace and the nature of interactions between employees. Employers should err on the side of caution.

Employers should also take reasonable measures to protect, to the extent possible, the identity and confidentiality of any employee who contracts COVID-19.

What if an Employee’s Family Member Tests Positive?

If an employee has been at risk of exposure from any source, the recommendation is to self-isolate for 14 days and to get tested. Coworkers who may have come into close contact with the employee should also leave the workplace for at least 14 days.

What if my Area is Hit with a “Second Wave”?

If COVID-19 cases spike in your area, you should consider taking similar actions to your first response, whether that be a temporary closure of the workplace or work from home solution.

Should you add telehealth services to your benefits package?

More than 9 in 10 Canadians are satisfied with the level of care they received from a virtual healthcare visit, according to a new survey by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA).

Another survey by Green Shield Canada (GSC) indicates that 78% of plan members surveyed said that virtual healthcare should be part of their benefits moving forward.

If you want to remain competitive and provide sought-after coverage, you may want to consider adding telehealth services to your benefits package. Check with your current providers — it may be that they already have some telehealth options available!

How will you handle employees who do not physically or socially distance themselves at work?

The recommendations for physical and social distancing should fall under your existing Health and Safety and Discipline policies. COVID-19, while very serious, is much like any other workplace hazard, and so should be treated as any other health and safety concern.

If you do not have a workplace Health and Safety policy in place, now is the time to implement one for this crisis and all health and safety hazards going forward.

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© 2020 by Avanti Planning Group Ltd.

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