OHS Canada Magazine

Misconceptions remain around returning to work

Employers should work with HR to implement, communicate clear steps that ensure safety measures are being followed


With a priority on health and safety, employers can continue to inspire confidence in their people to return to work as appropriate, writes Janet Candido. (Southworks/Adobe Stock)

As many companies struggle to remain sustainable and competitive amid COVID-19, employers and employees are concerned they may need to reevaluate their current work situation yet again as case counts soar.

And as government regulations continue to evolve, both sides may have misconceptions about their rights and responsibilities.

In general, employers and managers have so far been great at being flexible and accommodating, whether allowing people to work from home or rotating workplace shifts.

And they should be — as far as is reasonably possible — since there is much to be gained; providing flexibility not only makes it easier for employees to complete their work, it also engenders loyalty.

In addition, with many Canadians working from home during the pandemic, a recent survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers shows that the majority of employees rate their productivity as either remaining the same or increasing during the pandemic.

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Creative, hybrid solutions

While employers should strive to develop creative, hybrid solutions there are circumstances where accommodation may not make sense.

This includes when roles require on-site attendance or are time- or process-driven, when the accommodation may endanger someone else, when it is cost prohibitive or otherwise just not doable.

But what about accommodating employees who are still working from home and nervous about returning to work?

A good first step to easing concerns is to have an open conversation and actively listen to, and empathize with, their specific fears.

Show understanding that this is a stressful situation by providing mental health support, if necessary, via resources such as the Canadian Mental Health Association, or encouraging them to practice self-care activities even while on the job.

Be proactive about communicating plans and procedures that are in place to manage their safety and limit the risk of exposure.

Refusing unsafe work

An employee has the right to refuse unsafe work under the Canada Labour Code and provincial health and safety legislation if there is “reasonable cause to believe that the job presents a danger to themselves or another employee.”

However, as long as an employer has done their due diligence and is complying with provincial and federal health and safety regulations, a fear of catching the virus is not a reasonable concern for an employee to refuse returning to work.

In fact, employees bear responsibilities of their own concerning health and safety, particularly in the context of COVID-19, such as following management’s directions regarding reporting to work and workplace health procedures.

That said, employers should keep up to date on the regulations and make changes as needed.

For example, Ontario now requires employees to complete a self-declaration survey each day to determine if they may enter the workplace, leading to the development of self-screening apps that businesses can easily and quickly implement.

In addition, the Ontario government has made temporary amendments to the Employment Standards Act during COVID-19, though these are expected to change once again in January 2021.

While most provincial governments and municipalities have “snitch” lines for reporting public flouting of pandemic legislation, how should employees deal with this in the workplace?

While most Canadians respect COVID safety precautions, many employees and even managers may not have a defined playbook for how to handle rule-breakers at work.

A recent survey from O.C. Tanner suggests workers believe there should be consequences, including:

  • verbal warnings from supervisors (61 per cent)
  • written warnings from supervisors (59 per cent)
  • job suspension (37 per cent)
  • financial repercussions, such as paying a fine (34 per cent)
  • mandatory return to working from home (24 per cent)

Employers should work with HR to implement and communicate clear steps that ensure safety measures are being followed, what to do if they are not, and outline the repercussions.

With a clear priority on health and safety, employers can continue to inspire confidence in their people to return to work as appropriate.

Janet Candido is the principal consultant and founder of Candido Consulting Group in Toronto.


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