employment lawincapacitysickness absence

Quite topical this one. Put briefly, reports of coronavirus spreading to new countries (and expanding within those countries) are ever increasing and it seems slightly inevitable that the World Health Organisation (WHO) may well declare the virus to constitute a worldwide pandemic in the coming days.

But, quite simply, there is little use in making much comment about ‘best steps’ in relation to coronavirus within the workplace. This is for two main reasons: firstly, because that guidance would most likely be out-of-date within two days (and, rather, it is best keeping an eye on the Foreign Office’s website for travel advice and more) and, secondly, because different employers tackle illness (and potential illness) in different ways.

So, why is this? Why would there be two employers in the same part of the country who (legitimately) have different approaches to staff illness? Let’s have a look at two hypothetical employers, Pascal Doggo Limited and Popper Penguin Limited. Forgive the ridiculous names but, naturally, I’m keen to avoid any real companies being confused with my made-up examples.

Pascal Doggo Limited make dog food and, as such, have very strict hygiene rules to avoid contamination of their food product. Whilst staff are required to wear hygienic uniform, including face masks, the company are keen to avoid ill staff attending work and, as such, encourage ill staff to stay at home rather than attend work unwell. To encourage this, the company has generous sickness pay (i.e. pays full pay for a set period of time, which increases with the number of years worked) rather than paying Statutory Sickness Pay and doesn’t utilise restrictive sickness absence triggers (and, instead, simply reviews sickness absence records every 3 months or so and takes a common sense view dependent on the reason for absence). Pascal Doggo therefore have a very ‘flexible’ approach to sickness absence and, in fact, within the current coronavirus climate, would wish staff to follow Foreign Office travel guidance (found here) and self-quarantine when required to do so.

On the flipside, Popper Penguin Limited manufacture penguin-related toys and statuettes. Due to this, they don’t have strict hygiene rules (and, in fact, due to the lengthy production and boxing process, any virus would be dormant by the time the product reached consumers). What the company does have is a need for near full staffing in order to make sufficient items as to be profitable and remain in business and, partly due to this, the company has a very ‘restrictive’ approach to sickness absence which includes only paying Statutory Sickness Pay (which runs out after 28 weeks) and having sickness absence triggers which automatically trigger a sickness absence meeting (which could result in a written warning) regardless of the reason behind the illness. Due to their rules, it may be that any individual who ‘self-quarantines’ on Foreign Office travel guidance when not feeling unwell (i.e. having come from an area of the world, such as China or Northern Italy, in which it is currently advised to self-quarantine even if not feeling unwell) could face a potential written warning for sickness absence despite it being an act to avoid illness spread. Whether that action would be legally compliant is perhaps a question for another blog…

Put simply then, whilst some companies will be concerned with the spread of coronavirus and any staff members returning from trips abroad, other companies may simply wish the status quo to continue (i.e. to work through illness within the workplace unless it is literally too difficult to work). Of course, some companies may, for the time being whilst the coronavirus continues to spread, have a middle-of-the-road attitude and regard any measures taken by a staff member who fears having coronavirus as necessary and not to be criticised.

For now, it may well be that companies inform staff members of any relevant measures they should take in relation to illness or coronavirus, whilst the world as a whole sees how much more serious the outbreak can get.