Coronavirus and your employees – protecting them in an uncertain world

As coronavirus spreads around the world, we consider the implications for globally mobile employees and how their employers can support them.

As coronavirus spreads around the world, we consider the implications for globally mobile employees and how their employers can support them.
The spread of the coronavirus appears to be accelerating, with increases in Italy, France and Austria. With the first cases this week confirmed in Brazil and Greece, the virus is now present on every continent of the world.There are real issues for employers around the safeguarding and protection of employees and assignees who are stationed around the world. In this new global economy, staff may be travelling through several countries within a matter of days or may be resident abroad and looking for advice and assistance as to whether they need to return the UK, work from home or take mitigating steps. If a city goes into lockdown, it could become difficult for your staff to carry on with normal life. Finding food and medical supplies may become a priority over work. They will be worried about the health of themselves and their families, and schools may be closed – all adding to the stress of the situation.As travel becomes more restricted and there are greater checks at airports, hubs and travel centres, it may become almost impossible for some staff to do their jobs or they may request to come home. This is where they will need support and robust advice – not ‘fake news’ they have picked up from the Internet.

Supporting your people – wherever they are

One of the challenges for organisations is that there is no single solution for all employees, because the different geographical regions and nature of their jobs mean each individual faces a different risk.“There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution, as every organisation is unique, with different stakeholders owning employee welfare responsibility,” says Juan Peña Núñez, business development director at Healix International. “Employees have distinct risk profiles and exposure, often spread geographically all over the world, doing a variety of tasks, some more dangerous than others.”Mr Peña Núñez says businesses and organisations have a legal and moral obligation to ensure the safety of their workforce, irrespective of their location, whether they are at home, in the office, based abroad or travelling on business.Healix International has issued its latest advisory on the coronavirus outbreak, Coronavirus: latest advice to travellers and employers. Among other key pieces of advice, Dr Adrian Hyzler, chief medical officer at Healix International, recommends:
  • Highly precautionary measures to limit the potential spread of the infection
  • Against all travel to Band A countries/territories (see list in advisory)
  • Against non-essential travel to Band B countries/territories (see list in advisory)
  • That adults over age 60 with pre-existing conditions should consider postponing non-essential travel to Band C countries / territories
  • That all travellers should consider postponing travel on cruise ships whether within Asia or the rest of the world. The population of a cruise ship is drawn from all nationalities and the likelihood of a case of covid-19 on board is ever increasing.

Duty of care: the importance of having robust protocols in place

Mr Peña Núñez adds that it is crucial for organisations to have in place robust, fit-for-purpose policies, protocols and systems to protect, reassure and assist people. This can appear overwhelming and challenging, but there are specialist organisations, one of which is Healix, that have the expertise and knowledge to help organisations design and implement a bespoke duty-of-care programme. Dr Hyzler agrees that advice needs to be tailored to the individual. “Employers need to look carefully at geographical locations, specific work environments and workforce demographics to make decisions on working from home,” he says. 

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In places where there are government directives – for example in Hong Kong, citizens are advised to reduce social contact and avoid gatherings – this is a clear indication that an organisation should follow official advice. “In a situation where there is a close office environment and evidence of community spread, it makes business sense to consider advising employees to work from home, where this is feasible,” he says. Dr Hyzler adds that the business disruption that would be caused by one employee who was showing symptoms of the virus, let alone a confirmed case, would be substantial. 

Being prepared for all events

While companies engaged in employee mobility are more attuned to the challenges of having staff working around the globe, other companies may not have considered all the issues around having a geographically diverse workforce. This can then have a knock-on effect, impacting the supply chain and existing partnerships. You also need to consider that your employee may be alone, working from home, with minimal contact with other people and be gleaning most of their news from the Internet, where not everything is reliably sourced.
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Robert Fletcher, co-founder of Heart Relocation, says a dilemma for employers is that people are accessing data from all kinds of places on the Internet and not all of the information is accurate. “Our advice to our clients is to only seek information and follow directly the advice from their government sources,” he says.“Clearly the best way to stay safe during the outbreak, particularly in those locations where it is virulent, is to isolate yourself and take sensible precautions. Overall, businesses should be prepared to manage their operations remotely and ensure that staff members can be effective when working remotely.”

Putting wellbeing at the heart of employee support

Being away from home can make assignees feel very vulnerable, especially if they are on location with their family or dependent relatives. Their mental health, as much as their physical health, may be under strain.Paul Holcroft, associate director at HR consultancy Croner, says that in addition to having a duty of care to protect health and safety, you also need to consider the wellbeing of employees, who may be very anxious about the virus. “Consider any wellbeing initiatives you have and remind employees of them; for example, an Employee Assistance Programme. Always know where your employees are and where they are going.”When determining your response to the virus, pay particular attention to the needs of certain employees who may be vulnerable; for example those with existing respiratory conditions such as chronic lung disease, diabetes and cancer, as well as those who are pregnant or are older, he says.

The power of data to protect employees

American Express Global Business Travel (GBT) manages more than $35 billion of the world’s business travel, supporting close to 10 million travellers each year.Martin Ferguson, VP of public affairs at GBT, says technology can help find staff in an emergency, check where they are when communication channels are not working and assist them when they are travelling. “When a major incident happens, it’s vital that companies know where their travelling employees are, so it’s important they are booking travel through the proper travel management company (TMC) channel, for example, the corporate online booking tool,” he says.This way, the TMC has the data to help pinpoint, support and communicate with the travellers. The more organisations work with their TMCs to engage with employees and drive compliance with travel policy, the better prepared they are for the unexpected.

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“These data points, in addition to flight and hotel information, are very helpful in finding your people in an emergency, but companies need to comply with all privacy and consent regulations around their employees’ data – so you need to educate staff on the benefits of programmes like these,” Mr Ferguson says. That education process needs to happen as part of your ongoing employee support, not just at times of emergency. As well as knowing where your travellers are, good data visibility on where they’re going can help – if people book in advance and in the corporate channel, it is easier for companies to make contingency plans and prompt travellers to cancel or amend bookings, he says. You can also work with the TMC to configure rules and settings in the booking tool, to prevent unwanted trips being booked.

Protecting employees from discrimination

Finally, Mr Holcroft says it is important to remember that the coronavirus is not a reason to treat employees differently because of their nationality and other employees need to ensure that there is no discrimination.“You should be alert to ‘banter’ and other instances of harassment between employees about the virus which relates to someone’s nationality or ethnicity,” he says. “Ensure that your zero-tolerance stance to harassment is maintained.”

Marianne will be covering how coronavirus affects global employees in a longer article in the Spring issue of Relocate magazine - out in March/April. 

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