The affect of virus and disease pandemics in the workplace

Mar 14, 2020 | Resources

In view of the outbreak of coronavirus across the world and in the UK, it is important for employers to carefully consider what they can do to protect their business and their employees from viruses epidemics, especially if the threat escalates.

Employers should issue clear guidance to employees who have recently travelled to an area where there have been outbreaks of viruses or who have been in contact with someone who has. Employers should also consider putting in place a flu pandemic or infectious diseases contingency plan that addresses business continuity issues in the event that the situation worsens. Even if a virus pandemic does not immediately affect the employer’s business or area they are located in, it is good practice to have contingency plans in order to limit the risk posed and any ensuing disruption.

Employers should carefully consider how to manage an employee who has been potentially exposed to the illness. If an employee has symptoms associated with the virus outbreak, has been in contact with an infected person, or has been in contact with someone who has recently travelled to the crisis areas, should they be instructed not to come to work?

The employer will have to assess whether the business should close their workplace during a flu pandemic or an infectious disease outbreak to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, such as coronavirus, in order to protect their employees. Further, employers should consider whether they have a duty to take special measures to protect those employees who are most at risk if they are exposed to the virus outbreak, especially where they are in close contact with someone that has. Public Health England defines close contact as being within two metres of someone for 15 minutes or more or sharing a room for a prolonged period.

Although organisations owe a duty of care to employees to take reasonable steps to ensure their health and safety, there is no legal obligation to impose a precautionary suspension of non-symptomatic employees returning from holiday or work in an area known to have experienced incidences of a virus. Employers should ensure that they do not succumb to the complaints of other employees, as third party pressure from colleagues should not be regarded as a sufficient reason to impose a suspension.

If an employer or an employee has travelled to a significantly affected area within the last two weeks or have been in close contact with someone who has and they feel unwell, it is essential to call the NHS 111 for advice immediately. The NHS will advise the employee on best practice from there.

Where an employee is returning from an affected area appears to have possible symptoms, it is recommended that they should be referred to their GP. If the GP determines that they are unfit for work then they should be treated as on sickness absence leave, in accordance normal organisational procedures. Many viruses are especially risky to those who are very young, elderly or have pre-existing medical conditions. Employers should bear this in mind if the employee is a parent, carer or has a medical condition. Some people may need to have longer sickness absences than others in order to fully recover and should not be penalised for doing so.

If the employee did enter the workplace, colleagues who have had contact with the employee should be made aware of the symptoms and advised to contact their GP should they experience them. If the GP does not certify the employee unfit for work, but the employer is still concerned, then the employer may consider other options such as asking the employee to work from home in self-quarantine where possible. It is also important to keep in mind that an employee can self-certify as sick for up to seven days and may elect to do so, although they should not be pressured to do this. Alternatively, the employer may consider suspending the employee on precautionary grounds for a brief amount of time, such as through medical suspension on full pay unless the employment contract gives the employer the right to suspend without pay for this reason.

Virus outbreaks can also affect the workplace in other ways. Where an employee has annual leave booked to go on holiday, they may wish to cancel their holiday plans at short notice if they were planning to visit affected areas. This may result in requests to postpone holiday dates that have already been agreed. Where possible, employers should grant these requests, otherwise employees might feel pressured to taking the holiday as originally planned and putting themselves at risk.

Where there is a virus or disease outbreak on a mass scale, the UK Government will often typically be advised against ‘all but essential travel’ to the affected area. Therefore, where an employer or their employees are expected to travel to such areas for business, it is recommended that the employer implements alternatives for important international business meetings, such as by utilising Skype or conference calls.

Employers should direct employees to impartial advice during virus or disease outbreaks, such as that provided by the NHS or Public Health England. These organisations provide helpful, practical advice for limiting exposure and maintaining good hygiene. For example, hand hygiene is the first line of defence in preventing the spread of viruses thus employees should be reminded to wash them frequently with soap and water or use hand sanitising gel.

In the workplace, it is recommended that tissues should be placed at each workstation and hand sanitisers be placed at several locations around the workplace such as by printers or communal areas like kitchens and canteens. This will help to limit the spread of viruses. Employers should also advise employees to take the following precautions:

  • Always wash hands before eating.
  • Be especially careful in busy airports and other public transport systems about touching things and then touching faces.
  • Carry disposable tissues, cover noses and mouths when coughing or sneezing and dispose of the tissue carefully.
  • Do not share snacks from packets or bowls that others are dipping their fingers into.
  • Avoid shaking hands or cheek kissing if it is suspected that viruses are circulating.
  • Regularly clean commonly used surfaces and devices that are touched or handled.

More information about Coronavirus and the UK Government’s advice is available on the Public Health England website.


This article was written by rradar and we’ve shared it with their permission.

More News

BSCA to trial ‘Coach of the Day’ award at GB Summers

BSCA to trial ‘Coach of the Day’ award at GB Summers

The BSCA is to launch a new daily coach recognition award at the 2024 AquaticsGB Summer Nationals in Sheffield Ponds Forge. Each day, the BSCA will set up a fresh WhatsApp group where nominations can be placed. The nominations can only be placed via the WhatsApp group...

Coach McNulty Awarded MBE in Kings Birthday Honours List

Coach McNulty Awarded MBE in Kings Birthday Honours List

From Olympic gold-medal-winning coach Dave McNulty has been awarded MBE (Member of the British Empire) in the King’s Birthday Honours List (2024).  McNulty is honoured for services to swimming, one month before his fourth Olympic Games as Head...

Coaching community mourns the passing of Mona Denison

Coaching community mourns the passing of Mona Denison

The BSCA have been informed of the peaceful passing of Mona Denison, wife of former BSCA Chair Terry, on Friday 31st May, after a period of illness. They had been married for 61 years. Terry & Mona were forever by one another's side and were fundamental in the...