Get answers to the most commonly asked and HR practice related questions and understand how to support your business through a global health emergency
The new coronavirus disease, officially named COVID-19, has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. As the virus continues to spread extensively, it’s posing a significant challenge to many organisations.
This factsheet provides an overview of the current coronavirus situation. It explains what the virus is and gives advice on how employers should respond to the threat and support employees by being prepared, particularly looking after employees’ health and safety and developing flexible resourcing plans.
What is coronavirus (COVID-19)?
Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as MERS-CoV and SARS (Cov). The official name for this new disease, not previously seen in humans, is Covid-19. It was first identified in Wuhan City, in Hubei province, China.
Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people. As this new strain causes a new illness, it's not known exactly how it spreads from person to person, but similar viruses spread by cough droplets.
Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and death. Generally, more severe cases occur in people with weakened immune systems, older people, and those with long-term conditions like diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the virus a global health emergency. Although it is spreading around the world, and spreading quickly, it is yet to be classed as a ‘pandemic’. A pandemic, in WHO terms, is ‘the worldwide spread of a disease’. It's still unclear how severe the virus is, and how far it will spread.
On Friday 28 February 2020, the World Health Organization raised the global risk assessment of the infection to 'very high', but the risk level depends on each country.
Currently the main concern for employers is dealing with travel to and from affected areas. Several governments have advised against all travel to Hubei province and all but essential travel to the rest of mainland China, the cities of Daegu and Cheongdo in South Korea and several small towns in Northern Italy. We advise all employers to keep up to date with the latest advice on travel from local authorities.
Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as MERS-CoV and SARS (Cov). The official name for this new disease, not previously seen in humans, is COVID-19. It was first identified in Wuhan City, in Hubei province, China.
COVID-19 spreads in a similar way to flu, where there is close contact between people. If someone with the virus coughs or exhales and is within a metre of someone else, the other person could catch it by breathing in droplets of infected fluid. People can also catch it by touching contaminated surfaces or objects. Most people infected with the virus have mild symptoms and recover, but some experience more serious illness and may need hospital care. People over 40 seem to be more vulnerable, as are those with weakened immune systems or an underlying health condition such as diabetes, cancer and lung disease.
The incubation period of COVID-19 is between 2 and 14 days. Common signs of infection include a fever, a cough and difficulty in breathing.
In January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus a public health emergency of international concern. As it’s spreading around the world, and spreading quickly, on 11 March the WHO categorised it as a ‘pandemic’ which, in WHO terms, is ‘the worldwide spread of a disease’.
How employers should respond to COVID-19
As the virus continues to spread, it could pose a significant threat to some organisations. We live in a global economy and many employers have operations or supply chains based overseas. The level of risk an organisation may face will depend on whether it is directly or indirectly affected in this way. An organisation may also be affected if it employs people who have travelled back, or been in contact with, anyone who has returned from an area affected by the virus.
If the virus becomes a pandemic, it could lead to wider disruptions with suppliers and customers and to shortages of fuel and other basic commodities. There may also be disruptions to public transport.
- Keep up to date with Government and public health advice: Employers should keep up to date with the situation as it develops and refer employees who are concerned about infection to official and expert medical sources through local and federal government agencies like Health Ministries and Health Authorities.
- Develop a contingency plan: Every organisation will need to assess its own level of exposure to business disruption caused by the virus. If it has a site, conducts business or has supply chains in China or an affected region, there will be a direct impact to the company’s day-to-day operations. The plan will need to take account of current and potential impacts and manage the specific business risks associated with the disruption, including service delivery and workforce issues. Communicate the plan to key teams and individuals across the business.
- Build a contingency team: Identify a person, or small group of people, that would take responsibility for operating the contingency plan should a pandemic occur and allocate clear responsibilities for its implementation.
- If a pandemic does occur: Those responsible for the contingency plan should meet regularly to review the preparations and ensure they are still fit for purpose. It’s important to act early, even if planned contingencies are not then needed.
Advice for employees returning from travel
Across APAC, advice from local authorities differ but we generally see a theme of: Any employees returning from overseas in the last 14 days should stay indoors and avoid contact with other people, even if they don’t have symptoms of this virus. This advice is changing daily – stay up to date with the latest advice from your local authority.
Look after people’s health, well-being and safety
Employees’ health, safety and well-being during a global health emergency like the coronavirus outbreak should 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's also a strong moral responsibility to ensure that employees feel safe and secure in their employment. Communicate clearly to employees that they need to take precautions, avoiding travel to affected areas and/or coming into contact with infected or potentially infected people or animals. Advise them on what to do if they think they may have caught the virus.
Check with your local authorities on the latest policy and advice in regard to self-isolation and sick-pay should you employees be asked to self-quarantine or contract COVID-19
Wider health and well-being concerns
- Keep up to date and follow official medical advice as it’s updated. Keep employees informed, particularly in relation to the specific guidelines for employees who have returned from affected areas, or have been in contact with an infected person, or with an individual who has returned from affected areas. Actively communicate this advice with your people, customers and suppliers.
- Implement an internal communication strategy so that employees are aware of measures that are being taken to manage the situation in your organisation. Understand that some people may have real concerns about catching the virus, while others may have worries about family or friends stranded in, or returning from, an affected area. Try to reassure employees that there is no need to panic and the risk to the population remains low. Ensure that line managers are regularly informed about the organisation’s contingency plans and how to discuss the situation with any concerned employees, and where to signpost people to for further advice or support.
- Promote the resources you have available to support people’s health and well-being generally, including those through an employee assistance programme.
- If the virus spreads widely and/or becomes a pandemic and the risk of infection is heightened, be prepared to step up the level of support you provide to staff and adjust your resourcing plans accordingly. Keep in mind anyone who may be more vulnerable due to a pre-existing health conditions, age, or pregnancy.
Develop flexible resourcing plans
- As part of your organisation’s contingency plan, explore more flexible resourcing strategies in case your business suffers staffing shortages.
- Develop strategies to maximise the amount of home working to prevent the spread of infection if necessary.
- Investigate ways of harnessing the use of technology to limit the amount of face-to-face contact, for example, video conferencing to facilitate remote meetings. For customer-facing organisations, consider introducing or maximising the use of self-service options and online services.
- Increased sickness absence may create a need for other employees, if willing, to work longer hours to keep your business going. If this happens, you will need to comply with the working time regulations applicable in your jurisdiction to ensure appropriate length of day time working hours, night shifts and rest breaks.
- Have in place plans that will enable the organisation to operate on a skeleton staff if necessary. Identify key services and roles that are essential and can’t be put on hold, as well as projects or roles that could be temporarily stood down. Identify those individuals and managers who have transferrable skills, who can fulfil more than one function and could be allocated to more essential roles.
- Carry out a resourcing risk assessment of the organisation, identifying essential areas of the business where few employees have the required skills. Training additional employees in these skills should be considered. Ensure that procedures are developed to ensure smooth handovers for employees who are filling in for colleagues in unfamiliar roles. It may be necessary to provide additional training and a risk assessment if individuals are moving to roles where there may be a healthy and safety risk.
- If your operations are severely affected, consider introducing a voluntary special leave policy on a temporary basis whereby individuals can opt to take paid or unpaid leave. Be mindful that there could be some employees who are willing to take additional time off and welcome a break, but others may struggle financially if they lose pay. Consider offering a shorter working week or other flexible resourcing arrangements and communicate the business reasons to employees.
Useful contacts and further reading
For Hong Kong:
Books and reports
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND SOCIAL CARE. (2020) Coronavirus action plan. London: DHSC.
BASKA, M. (2020) Coronavirus: HR and facilities teams must work together to keep workplaces hygienic. People Management (online). 6 March.
BASKA, M. (2020) Coronavirus: more support needed for working parents as schools close, say business bodies. People Management (online). 19 March.
CHURCHILL, F. (2020) Coronavirus could mean a fifth of the workforce is off sick, government warn. People Management (online). 3 March.
CHURCHILL, F. (2020) Staff anxiety the biggest coronavirus challenge for businesses, survey finds. People Management (online). 20 March.
HOWLETT, E. (2020) Coronavirus: how should HR approach self-isolation?People Management (online). 27 February.
Explore more on the People Management coronavirus hub.
Note: The CIPD is not engaged in the practice of law, accounting or medicine. Any commentary in this article does not constitute and is not a substitute for legal, tax or medical advice. Readers of this article should consult a legal, tax or medical expert for advice on those matters.
This factsheet was last updated by Rachel Suff.
Rachel Suff: Senior Employee Relations Adviser
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