If your workplace has turned rather hostile due to COVID-19 panic, you’re not alone. Although sickness in the workplace is not uncommon, the strict guidelines in place to reduce transmission of COVID-19 and constant news updates on the spread of the disease, can make people hyper-aware and even suspicious of their co-workers’ health.

Gawie Cillié, employment relations expert and lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), says the alarming rate of infections could potentially provoke social stigma against anyone perceived to have been in contact with the virus or who shows some of the symptoms even if they are not infected.

“Stigma is associated with a lack of knowledge about how COVID-19 spreads, a need to blame others, fears about disease and death, increased tension amongst teams and gossip that spreads rumours and myths. This very stigma can result in people hiding their illness to avoid discrimination and prevent people from seeking health care immediately.”

In addition, Cillié says employees who have contracted the virus might experience bullying when they return to work.  “Bullying can be described as repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee or a group of employees that creates a risk to their health and safety.”

Anxiety may exacerbate hostility

“The constant exposure to news updates about COVID-19 increases anxiety and can result in hostile working environments. Even if teams are working remotely, if someone has been in isolation due to contracting the virus, their colleagues could very well treat them differently even on virtual platforms.”

“If people are stifling coughs to avoid harassment from colleagues, or being avoided unnecessarily in the office environment, even with the 1.5 metre safety guidelines in place, hand-sanitising and masks, then management needs to intervene.”

He says labour legislation is there to protect employees and the most relevant are the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHS) and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCOE).

“Provisions of the OHS Act state that the general duties of employers to their employees are to provide and maintain, as far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risk to the health of employees (section 8). With reference to the general duties of employees at work, the OHS Act states that every employee at work shall take reasonable care for the health and safety of themselves and other persons who may be affected by their acts or omissions (section 14).”

Cillié says that if an individual employee contracts the virus and is unable to work, the employer can require the employee to submit a medical certificate and grant the employee paid sick leave in accordance with the BCOE Act.

Quarantine, medical certificate and payment

“However, if the employee must be quarantined due to exposure to COVID-19, they will naturally not be permitted to work at the business premises as a preventative measure. In this scenario the employer should grant the employee ‘quarantine leave’. The employer is not allowed to force the employee to take sick leave, as the employee will not be able to obtain a medical certificate while under quarantine to submit to his employer.”

“Any payment by the employer for quarantine leave is discretionary. However, the employer can assist the employee to apply for Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) Illness Benefits, which is limited to the usual UIF benefit structure. Normal UIF benefits accrue at a rate of one day for every four days worked (maximum credit provisions may apply).”

He says whether employees are stigmatised on returning to work after being in quarantine or are being exposed to senseless fearmongering, employers can manage bullying in the workplace by focusing on the psychological safety climate and taking the following actions:

  • Amplify the voices and stories of people who have experienced COVID-19 and have recovered, emphasising the high recovery rate
  • Establish a “people first” language that respects and empowers people in all communication channels.  Examples of how to use inclusive language and less stigmatising terminology, include:
    • Talk about people who have COVID-19 in human terms; don’t refer to people with the disease as “COVID-19 cases” or “victims”.
    • Speak accurately about the risks of COVID-19, based on scientific data and the latest official health advice.  Do not repeat or share unconfirmed rumours.
    • Do talk positively and emphasise the effectiveness of prevention and treatment measures.  Do not dwell on the negative, or messages that convey threat.  We need to walk together to help keep those who are most vulnerable safe.
  • Actively encourage engagement with employees by:
    • Regularly checking-in with employees, including those working remotely, as to their well-being.
    • Discuss with on-site employees whether they feel safe with the protocols that have been implemented in the workplace.
    • Develop clear organisational procedures, management practices and communication systems relating to bullying behaviour and reassure employees that they can discuss such matters freely with the organisation if they are being bullied.
  • Establish policies and procedures to manage interpersonal conflict.
  • Provide information on employees’ roles, responsibilities, and rights, as well as the organisation’s role in dealing with any workplace bullying related to COVID-19.

Cillié says the many workplace challenges posed by COVOD-19, requires “collaboration between employers and employees, and a mind-set of wanting to understand each other’s’ interests and concerns in an effort in finding common ground”.

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