As the UK prepares for a return to the workplace, insurers are faced with demands from employers for advice on a range of emerging risks that will accompany the new normal post-pandemic

Many firms have planned a return to the workplace in June once the next stage of the easing of Covid-19 restrictions comes into force, which will remove much - if not all - restrictions around social distancing.

With some firms, including many insurers, looking to move to a hybrid system of working – where staff split their time between the workplace and working remotely – company management and human resources departments are faced with discussions around how to best manage the return to work and the potential issues around staff members who are reluctant to return.

Nick Elwell Sutton, an employment partner at law firm Clyde and Co told Insurance Times that employers should be aware of the potential for new types of claims once staff return to the workplace.

“We are likely to see an increase [in] claims as workplaces start to open up. Both staff and management will have concerns around the return to work,” he said.

“It is highly likely that there will be new types of claims [that] arise around Covid. Brokers and insurers should look at their clients’ employment practices liability policies, as many of the claims are likely to fall within its coverage.”

Following the latest easing of restrictions on 17 May 2021, the move back to the workplace has already begun for some businesses, with Aviva emailing its 16,500 staff to say that it is safe to return to the office, if they wish to do so.

The insurer has implemented a hybrid working model for the future, with chief executive Amanda Blanc revealing that she will be working remotely for part of the week.

Her view is that if she is in the office five days a week, it will pressure staff to do the same - something she wants to avoid.

“How you come out of Covid is probably going to be the most important issue now because it’ll be the last thing people remember about the way they were treated by their employer during the pandemic,” she said.

Claims concerns

While management is planning for staff to return to offices, there are growing fears that employees have become increasingly reluctant to come back to the workplace. One of the biggest issues is around the UK’s vaccination programme.

A survey by HR software firm CIPHR revealed that 35% of the 1,163 UK workers polled said they would not work in the same office or work environment as someone who has refused the Covid-19 vaccination.

The study, published in April, also found that 64% of UK workers think employers should be able to require that employees receive the Covid-19 vaccine in order for them to return to the office or workplace.

Elwell Sutton said that despite the concerns around staff who through ethical reasons have not been vaccinated at present, employers would be in a difficult position to refuse access to the workplace as it is likely that such a move would be tested in the courts under the employee’s human right to refuse the vaccine.

Potential challenges

In terms of other workplace-related “challenges that have arisen due to Covid”, Elwell Sutton said “the first is around those staff who are suffering from long Covid”.

He explained: “At present there is little known about the condition, who it effects and any predisposition. Many of the symptoms, such as lethargy, are extremely hard for a medical professional to accurately diagnose or test for and companies will need to manage long Covid cases very carefully.”

“Another issue may well be the different approaches staff will take to social distancing,” he added.

“There may well be members of staff who will want to see health and safety rules rigorously implemented, while there may be some staff who do not see the need to follow the rules around social distancing from colleagues. It creates the potential for some tension within offices and teams if there are different approaches, which will need to be carefully managed.

“Firms also need to be prepared for claims should a member of staff believe they have contracted Covid within the workplace.

“It may well be a difficult thing to prove or disprove, but the risk needs to be addressed by company managers and [made] clear as to the steps that are in place to keep staff safe.”

People value

In May, Lloyd’s and KPMG issued a joint report exploring the ways in which the insurance industry can help organisations to manage and mitigate against the varying and far-reaching implications of human capital events, such as a pandemic.

It found that in protecting the value associated with teams rather than just key individuals, human capital insurance solutions could be key to workforce management in the wake of the pandemic and considering future systemic risks.

“Covid-19 has exacerbated many of the risks involving human capital value,” the report said.

“With the pandemic impacting the entire workforce globally, and many organisations still operating under a remote working model, the value of employees in achieving productivity is vital for business continuity.

“It is becoming increasingly apparent that talent attraction and retention and employee wellbeing are not just intrinsically linked, they also have a direct impact on business performance.

“Though most firms recognise this, many are failing to fully understand the value of their people.

“This means that their skills and knowledge – and corresponding value as human capital – depart when employees do, leaving firms exposed.

“By investing in employees through upskilling, better engagement and proactive culture management, firms can ensure they are attracting and retaining the best talent.”