Just as workplaces around Australia start to come back to life, Omicron’s new sub-variant is looming as a major handbrake to the return to office plans of major employers around the country.
With Omicron BA.2 reported to be more transmissible, including surviving longer on surfaces, new data is showing half of Australian office workers are worried about catching the virus at work while at the same time feeling pressure to return from managers.
Now government work-from-home mandates have been removed, major employers I talk to everyday are worried that the burden of responsibility for bringing workers back safely, is now resting squarely on their shoulders.
Setting return to work policies that mitigate COVID risks, while encouraging workers back to face-to-face, mask-free work environments, is a difficult balance to strike. And frankly, many businesses are failing to meet the expectations of their workers at this critical time.
In fact, half of the 1,000 Australian workers we surveyed earlier this month said they were worried about the lack of COVID protocols at their workplace.
The research showed more than half of businesses aren’t doing the one thing that employees wanted to increase their confidence in returning to work. Actually, having a plan.
COVID-safe confidence gap
More than four in five employees said they will only feel comfortable returning to face-to-face work if their organisation has a clear COVID-safe compliance policy in place. However, only 49% said their workplace has implemented any form of COVID testing or COVID-Safe processes.
Even the most basic policy of confirming worker vaccination status before returning to the workplace isn’t happening, a significant oversight that could prove costly.
One in five businesses hasn’t even asked their employee for proof of COVID vaccination. Of those that have been asked, almost a third (28%) provided their status by either physically showing it or simply through word of mouth, leaving behind no audit trail.
Litigation wave approaching
Not only are business leaders responsible for making sure their organisation has done everything it can to provide a safe work environment – but they also need to be able to prove it.
Those that fail to adequately manage COVID safety and compliance risks, are leaving themselves open to litigation.
Locally, we’ve already seen some workers suing employers for unsafe workplace practices and legal experts warn employers in Australia can't plead ignorance about regulations and testing requirements, with a significant increase in legal actions against employers expected.
Maurice Blackburn employment law principal Giri Sivaraman said recently that Australian companies could be liable if unvaccinated workers spread COVID-19 to colleagues. Four in five employees we surveyed agreed with Sivaraman, that employers should be held accountable for not providing a COVID-safe work environment.
In Australia, it has long been established that employers have a duty of care to maintain a safe workplace as far as is reasonably practicable. But what is “practicable” when you’re talking about a worldwide pandemic? What sort of duty do employers have to ensure that their employees don’t catch COVID?
All over the world, we are seeing COVID-related negligence suits being filed. Countries further along their COVID journey than Australia, such as Israel, Norway, Denmark, even Singapore, provide a clear indication of where we are heading with litigation starting for businesses that failed to put in place professional management systems.
In the United States, we have seen a compelling case where an employee attended work under the expectation that everyone at the workplace was properly vaccinated and tested and yet contracted COVID. Tragically, the employee transmitted COVID to a family member who subsequently died. The only defence the employer has been able to put forward is that it did everything it reasonably could to ensure a safe working environment, but with no audit trail or evidence, the company could not defend itself, rightly or wrongly.
Security risks and administration bottlenecks
The management of employees’ private health information, like vaccination certificates and testing results, is also an increasing burden for managers and administrators.
HR managers we speak with are pulling their hair out and wasting a lot of time trying to manage the sheer volume of daily COVID information being shared by workers, let alone do it securely.
The fact is, when it comes to sensitive private medical information, spreadsheets, documents and HR software shoehorned to try and tackle this compliance challenge just won’t cut it.
The privacy and reputational risks of a data breach are significant. And it’s eroding worker confidence. Almost half of the workers in our research said they don’t know how their workplace manages their personal COVID information, with as many not confident that their employer was storing their private medical data securely.
What does a successful COVID-Safe return to work look like in Australia?
Employers need to be proactive with setting a clear vaccination status and testing process if they’re to give workers the confidence to return to the workplace in significant numbers.
The AFL, an elite organisation of over 5,000 players and staff dispersed around Australia, have done this successfully, with clear policies around regular COVID testing and vaccination status compliance well documented.
But it hasn’t just left compliance with its policies to chance. As an organisation under heavy scrutiny, it has empowered its people and grown their confidence by implementing a digital solution for all AFL staff, players and contractors to securely upload vaccination documentation and rapid antigen testing results into an encrypted cloud-based platform.
This systemised management of COVID compliance, in a climate of increasing workplace litigation, is the gold standard for employers of all sizes. Anything less will fail to meet worker expectations, putting a handbrake on office reopenings and potentially proving costly when it comes to health and safety, reputation and potential litigation risks.