Return to Work from COVID-19

Part 4: The COVID-19 Conversation


In Parts 1, 2, and 3 of the Return to Work series, we discussed some of the legal considerations in planning a return to work during COVID-19. Here in Part 4, we address the practical considerations of how to communicate a return to work plan. During these turbulent times, clear and effective communication is crucial for a successful return to work.


Plan the Conversation

Employers are encouraged to proactively develop an effective method for communicating with employees about COVID-19. Before employees return to work, employers should think about how best they can convey important information about health and safety measures to their employees. The exact means of communication should be tailored to the workforce. If e-mail is the common method of communication between coworkers, sending out workplace wide emails may be appropriate. However, if employees are not in the habit of regularly check email, alternatives, such as text messages may be better.

Employers should also consider how they want employees to communicate with them, should the employees need to report any important COVID-19 information, such as symptoms or an inability to return to work. A protocol should be in place so that employees feel comfortable that any private communications will remain confidential.


Start the Conversation

Once the employer has determined how to communicate with employees, the next step is to initiate the "COVID-19 Conversation".

As explained in Part 1 and 2 of this series, the onus is on the employer to provide a safe place to work. Accordingly, employers should keep employees informed about how their safety will be protected in the workplace. Details should be provided of any COVID-19 safety measures.

Equally as important, the employer should clearly outline any new policies or practices that employees must comply with on their return to work. For example, physical distancing measures or sanitization protocol. If training is required, employees should be advised when and how this training will be provided. Employers should also advise of the repercussions for failing to comply with health and safety protocol.

The benefits of starting the COVID-19 conversation are threefold:

  • 1.employers will ensure that employees are up-to-date on the information they need to know to safely return to work;
  • 2.clear and direct communications about COVID-19 protocol will reassure employees that their health and safety is a top priority; and
  • 3.initiating the conversation will encourage employees to openly communicate about COVID-19.


Continue the Conversation

Successful communication is a two- way street. Once the employer has initiated the conversation, it is important that employees continue it.

Open dialogue is especially important for employees who are unable to return to work as normal due to personal circumstances. Personal circumstances might include caring obligations or pre-existing medical conditions. In such cases, employees should discuss with their employer how their circumstances can be accommodated.

As outlined in Part 2 of this series, employers are obliged to accommodate the needs of the employees, if the needs relate to certain, protected grounds. This duty to accommodate is only triggered, however, if the employer has notice of the employee’s need for accommodation. The onus is on employees to disclose information that is relevant to their need for accommodation.

The process of accommodation itself should be collaborative and co-operative. Employees should be forthright about the challenges of returning to work, but also prepared to discuss alternative options. Likewise, employers would do well to carefully consider the individualized needs of employees and be willing to adopt flexible solutions.


Conclusion:

During these difficult and uncertain times, open communication is more important than ever. By initiating the "COVID-19 conversation", employers can convey important information, while also addressing and alleviating employee’s concerns. By picking up the dialogue, employees can collaborate with employers on a return to work process that works for them.

Lee Workplace Law would be happy to answer any questions you may have during this tricky time.


*Written by Hannah Goranson, Student-at-Law at Lee Workplace Law