Watch a video and download the slides from our webinar on supporting the health and well-being of workers classed as essential
This guide will help HR professionals access all the relevant CIPD resources to support front line workers, generally defined as those employees providing essential services during the pandemic. The UK Government uses the terms ‘key’ and ‘critical’ worker in its guidance; these include health and social care workers, employees involved in food distribution, utilities and emergency services and those involved in the justice system (among others).
Many will have experienced particular challenges during the pandemic, and therefore may need specific support from their employers.
Employers have a duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees. This includes mental health and wellbeing. For general information about health and safety at work, go to our health and safety factsheet.
Many employees have reported a decline in their mental health during the pandemic, and mental health charity Mind has found that front line workers have been particularly affected. Supporting mental health will be a long term consideration for HR and people managers both during and beyond COVID-19.
Considerations for HR:
- Where the signs and symptoms of poor mental health and wellbeing are well understood at all levels within an organisation, it can support early intervention and the opportunity to take early action to prevent the situation escalating. Brief line managers on the potential mental health implications of COVID-19 and their specific roles and responsibilities in relation to supporting staff. A sample briefing session that can be adapted is available in the CIPD guide: Supporting mental health during COVID-19.
- Regularly highlight mental health support services such as Employee Assistance Programmes. Where these are not provided, consider implementing appropriate support, or provide links to external sources of information and advice.
- Provide mental health awareness-raising activities – work towards a culture where it is acceptable to talk about and seek support for poor mental health. Sharing information about mental health can also enable employees to identify signs, especially early ones, in themselves and seek support.
- Promote general wellbeing activities that encourage physical, mental, financial and social wellbeing, in order to support broader health and wellbeing.
- Ensure prompt referral to occupational health or other support services if an employee notifies their employer or manager that they are experiencing poor mental health.
Many frontline workers will have been working long or additional hours during the pandemic, especially if employed in healthcare or other critical services. Remember under the Working Time Regulations, employees must always get adequate rest to support their health and wellbeing as well to ensure health and safety. You can find more information on the law relating to working time and rest periods in the CIPD factsheet and Q&As.
Normally, under working time legislation, employees should take their annual leave during the relevant leave year. However, during COVID-19 the government announced a temporary and immediate relaxation of the rules on carrying over untaken holiday to allow workers to carry over leave they have been unable to take due to Coronavirus into the next two leave years. This may mean that employees build up large amounts of annual leave or even Time Off In Lieu (TOIL) where employers operate such schemes.
Considerations for HR:
- Although holiday carry-over rules have been relaxed, employers must still take steps to ensure that employees are getting adequate rest, as well as taking other rest periods provided for under working time legislation. Where it is operationally feasible to do, employees should still be encouraged to take their leave in the relevant leave year.
- Employers should plan how to address any backlogs of annual leave building up within their organisations. Managers should monitor annual leave balances and accrued TOIL. Employers may require employees to take their leave at specified times where appropriate.
- Wherever possible, consider engaging employees in plans relating to managing leave or TOIL to ensure that they have a voice on this important topic.
- Employers should clearly communicate their position on working hours and annual leave, including any amendments to policies, explaining the reasons for any decisions taken and providing a route for asking questions or resolving any personal concerns.
- Employers must continue to promote the importance of rest and recovery for frontline workers to ensure their long term health and wellbeing. This can be included in broader wellbeing messaging.
Employees’ health, safety and wellbeing during this pandemic should continue to be paramount. Employers have a statutory duty of care for people’s health and safety, and to provide a safe place to work, but there is also a strong moral responsibility to ensure that employees feel safe and secure in their employment. Employers need to be proactive to protect their people and minimise the risk of the virus spreading.
Considerations for HR:
- Reassure frontline workers if they have concerns about the risk of infection, and keep them well informed about the organisation’s policies and contingency plans, particularly in relation to the specific guidelines for employees who have been in contact with an infected person or have symptoms of the virus.
- Regularly remind employees about the need to take basic hygiene precautions, such as ventilation, effective hand-washing, use of PPE and wearing masks, as well as any specific organisation policies or protocols. Update employees promptly of any changes to government guidance or internal approaches.
- Provide employees with a mechanism through which they can raise any questions or concerns about working safely during the pandemic.
- Where recognised, engage trade unions and workplace safety representatives in discussions about keeping frontline workers safe.
Eligibility for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) has been extended to those who do not have symptoms of COVID-19 but who are self-isolating, for example, due to NHS advice. The normal three day waiting period before SSP is payable has also been removed if the incapacity is due to COVID-19.
Employers should enable employees to self-isolate in accordance with the relevant guidance. This may include working from home (where the role permits), transferring employees to duties that can be undertaken from home, or paying SSP during the required period of self-isolation.
Considerations for HR:
- Provide clear information to employees about how they should report a requirement to self-isolate to their employer.
- Employers may wish to consider amending their sick policy to entitle employees to any enhanced / contractual company sick pay while employees are self-isolating to encourage them to comply with the law and government guidance.
- Employers should also review sickness absence policies to ensure that employees do not feel that they must attend work to avoid formal procedures. Examples may include excluding self-isolation as a category of absence or stating that it will not count towards trigger points.
- Supporting the mental health of employees who are required to self-isolate. Provide communication on any support services that are available and make sure managers are also aware of these and how to refer their teams.
- Ensure that managers are aware of the rules relating to self-isolation so that they can provide information to their employees.
Testing and vaccination
Employers may ask employees to be tested and vaccinated, which may be especially important for frontline workers. Generally, employers cannot insist on vaccination, nor a test, without an employee’s consent. However, if it is critical for public safety or to protect others (such as a healthcare worker) it may be reasonable for an employer to request that they do so. If an employee refuses, the employer’s ability to respond will depend on the specific circumstances, and they may wish to seek legal advice. The best course of action will likely be for employers to encourage staff to be vaccinated and publicise the benefits.
With effect from 11 November 2021 all care home provider employers regulated by the Care Quality Commission in England must ensure that anyone working in such a care home is double vaccinated. The duty will applies to employees, agency workers, volunteers, healthcare workers and tradespeople entering the home. Visitors of care home residents , residents and those with medical exemptions do not have to be vaccinated.
Employers may also need to keep records on whether employees have been vaccinated. This will amount to sensitive personal data and should be managed in accordance with relevant policies and procedures for data handling and security.
Considerations for HR:
- Talk to employees about any organisational plans for testing and vaccination requirements. Where appropriate also engage with recognised trade unions on these plans.
- Set out approaches to testing and vaccination in a clear policy or guidance document, providing a route for employees to ask questions or raise personal concerns. This should address how any records of tests or vaccinations will be maintained.
- Employers may wish to consider allowing employees to attend vaccination appointments during work time if applicable and operationally possible.
- Employers should prepare for what to do about employees who refuse to be vaccinated, taking advice where necessary. To support vaccination efforts employers may wish to communicate with employees about the benefits of immunisation, including sharing relevant government advice and information in order to to encourage take-up.
The pandemic has fundamentally changed working arrangements. Some employees have been furloughed while others have been working from home for many months. Frontline workers have continued to go to work and many of them have done so under difficult circumstances and in drastically altered working environments. Combined with the potential of increased levels of stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic, it is possible that tensions between these different groups may lead to workplace tensions in the future.
Considerations for HR:
- Managers play a key part in identifying and managing interpersonal relationship issues and conflict in the workplace. Encourage people managers to look out for signs of conflict and address them promptly before they escalate. Support them with guidance or training. Evidence of any inappropriate behaviour such as bullying must also be promptly addressed.
- If conflict becomes more problematic or entrenched, consider using formal mediation for individuals or small groups to resolve their differences in a structured and controlled environment. Generally, formal conflict resolution should be a last resort if informal opportunities have not led to necessary change or resolved the issues to everyone’s satisfaction.
- Take action to support good relationships between all employee groups during and following the pandemic. Promote shared understanding of different working experiences and bring groups together socially to reconnect (where appropriate and safe to do so).
- Not all forms of conflict are obvious. Ensure that employees know how to raise issues or concerns confidentially at work should they arise. This should include the provision of information on relevant internal policies and procedures.
- Clear communication from the employer, especially in terms of why any decisions were made about working arrangements, can help to reduce misunderstandings that might result in conflict arising.
Children and schooling
Schools generally are remaining open, although if there is an outbreak or staff shortages additional wrap-around care such as breakfast or after school clubs may not be available.
Employers can help frontline workers to find the right balance between looking after their children whilst also undertaking their critical work.
Considerations for HR:
- Ensure that key workers are aware of all of the opportunities available to them legally and through company specific policies. This may include flexible working opportunities, special leave or other leave policies that can support them whilst they are working.
- Consider whether there is any other specific support that can be provided depending on the organisational context; where appropriate ask employees what they need or what would help them with their home and work balance.
- Where schools require them, provide key workers with a letter to confirm their key worker status that employees can pass onto the school.
- Remember that even though someone is a key worker and their children are in school they may still require some flexibility around working hours if wraparound care is not available.
- Ensure that people managers are being supportive and inclusive – and that they are also aware of the options that are available for frontline workers who are also parents.
Reward and recognition
The pandemic has placed significant demands on most employees, especially frontline workers. Wherever possible their efforts should be recognised and rewarded. The term ‘reward’ usually refers to financial or similar benefits such as pay, bonuses and pensions. ‘Recognition’ is about the acknowledgement of high performance or contribution. Both reward and recognition can play a role in motivating, engaging and retaining employees.
Many frontline workers are working extremely hard during difficult circumstances and it is important to acknowledge their contribution to the organisation – and possibly to the wider society.
Considerations for HR:
- Remind employees and people managers about any internal recognition policies or programmes that allow employees to acknowledge each other. This could include simple thank you schemes or employee award programmes. Peer to peer recognition is just as important as recognition from managers and leaders.
- Celebrate successes. Even during the complexities of the global pandemic many employees are going above and beyond in their everyday work. Ensure that these successes are identified and shared with the wider organisation.
- Where appropriate, employers should consider whether their reward approach is fit for purpose during the pandemic. This may include considering the remuneration of frontline workers or reviewing policies around performance related rewards.
- Empower managers to reward and recognise performance in a timely way. This could include providing small reward budgets or gifts or tokens of appreciation. Rewards do not have to be significant to be valued by employees.
- Review flexible benefits schemes to identify if any changes are necessary to support frontline workers during the pandemic. For example, being more flexible with holiday purchasing or selling opportunities, or supporting employees who wish to join cycle to work schemes.
Effective internal communication is important for developing trust within an organisation and has a significant impact on employee engagement, organisational culture and, ultimately, productivity. During this uncertain time, effective communication and keeping in touch with employees is of paramount importance.
Employee voice is a key aspect of internal communication. It is the means by which people communicate their views to their employer and influence matters that affect them at work. It helps to build open and trusting relationships between employers and their people which can contribute to organisational success.
Considerations for HR:
- Frontline workers may not access electronic means of communication like staff intranets or even email on the same regularity as desk-based workers. Employers need to ensure that there is a range of ways of communicating vital information to their employees, including methods like noticeboards, briefings or leaflets.
- Employers should also ensure that there are mechanisms through which employees can raise their concerns or ask questions. Seeking employees’ opinions is also key – these can then be fed into organisational decision-making. Involve trade unions or other workplace groups where appropriate.
- Regular messaging about health and wellbeing as well as health and safety measures should be part of any internal communication plan.
- Optimise digital channels where available. Employers could use specific internal communication apps or encourage employees to join WhatsApp groups to receive timely information. Talk to frontline workers about which channels will work best for them.
- Providing frequent communication with predictable regularity can help to provide employees with reassurance and reinforce critical messages. Examples could include a weekly message from senior leaders or a regular question and answer session.
There is no general right for employees to take time off following a bereavement, unless it is the death of a child, where the bereaved parent (which is not limited to biological or adoptive parents) is entitled to take up two weeks paid leave. However, many employees will unfortunately have experienced a bereavement during COVID-19, and a supportive employer and manager can make a big difference to an employee experiencing grief. As a result of the pandemic people are also experiencing bereavement differently, with limitations on funerals and continuing social distancing measures, which can further impact bereaved employees.
Considerations for HR:
- Ensure that employees and their managers are aware of policies relating to bereavement, especially any rights to time off. Where appropriate, employers may wish to review their policies to ensure that employees can take sufficient leave before returning to work.
- Train managers or provide guidance in relation to bereavement. This should include information about the stages of grief and the potential need to amend workloads or objectives while employees are grieving.
- Provide information to employees about available support, such as Employee Assistance Programmes or mental health support.
- Be flexible in your approach – some employees may want to come back to work quickly, or may need a phased return. Others may need flexibility to attend counselling or address practical matters such as probate. Employees working on the frontline, especially those fulfilling vital services, may feel a need to return as soon as possible; they should be encouraged to take the time that they need for their own mental health and wellbeing.
- It may also be helpful to discuss with employees any temporary changes that may be of benefit, or if they would like anything communicating to colleagues.
- Coronavirus FAQs from the CIPD
- Mental Health at Work ‘Our Frontline’ support
- Mental Health at Work toolkits for key, healthcare, social care and emergency service workers
- Mind – Coping with going into work during Coronavirus
- Cruse Bereavement Care – Coronavirus, Bereavement and Grief
- The Samaritans mental health support for frontline workers
- Mental health resources for NHS workers
DISCLAIMER: The materials in this guidance are provided for general information purposes and do not constitute legal or other professional advice. While the information is considered to be true and correct at the date of publication, changes in circumstances may impact the accuracy and validity of the information. The CIPD is not responsible for any errors or omissions, or for any action or decision taken as a result of using the guidance. You should consult a professional adviser for legal or other advice where appropriate.
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