COVID-19 frequently asked questions on returning to work.

Frequently asked questions

1. I have been unable to work from home and I am now being asked by my line manager to return to the workplace. Previously, only staff identified by their Department as being essential workers were required to attend the workplace. What has changed?

The introduction of lockdown in March 2020 prompted major changes to the ways we work within the NICS. Arrangements were made to facilitate working from home wherever possible and only those staff who were determined to be in essential roles by their Department which could not be done from home were required to attend the workplace. In addition, a number of staff who were considered to be medically extremely vulnerable or vulnerable were advised to stay at home and not attend the workplace.

In line with the NICS recovery plan, and with the pausing of the shielding requirements for vulnerable people from 1 August 2020, it may now be possible for all members of staff who cannot work from home to commence an agreed, managed return to the workplace. Any agreed return to work will be in accordance with your Departmental recovery plan which is informed by Government/PHA guidelines. This may include arrangements such as alternative working patterns or rotas to maintain appropriate social distancing. Where appropriate, individual risk assessments should be considered to support your return to work.

2. I will be returning to the workplace after a period of time at home because of the arrangements put in place within NICS to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. I am not in either the vulnerable or extremely vulnerable groups of people. What can I do to prepare myself for my return to work?

Within NICS, staff who can work from home should continue to work from home. Where it has not been possible for you to work from home you will now be required to commence an agreed, managed return to work in line with the NI Executive’s Five Step Recovery Plan and your departmental recovery plan.

Understandably you may have some concerns about returning to the workplace after a long period of time at home.

A large number of measures have already been taken to ensure the health and wellbeing of everyone currently in the workplace and it is important that you hear about these to ease your transition back to work.

You will have been in regular contact with your line manager during your tine away from work and your manager will arrange in your next discussion to talk about the measures in place and to take account of any preparations that are required for you to return to the workplace in cases where you cannot work from home. Where appropriate, an individual risk assessment may be considered to support your return to the workplace.

There are support services that are available and which may also assist you to arrange your return to work.

3. My member of staff is due to return to the workplace after a period of time at home because of the arrangements put in place within NICS to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. They are not in either the vulnerable or extremely vulnerable groups of people. What do I need to do in preparation for my member of staff returning to work?

Within NICS staff who can work from home should continue to work from home. Where it has not been possible to arrange working from home for your member of staff, they will now be able to commence an agreed, managed return to work in line with the NI Executive’s Five Step Recovery Plan and your departmental recovery plan.

It is understandable that your member of staff may have some concerns about returning to the workplace and it is important that you reassure them regarding the large number of measures that have already been put in place to ensure their health and wellbeing as they transition back to work.

You will have been in regular contact with your member of staff during their time away from work and it is important in your next discussion you talk about any concerns your member of staff may have about returning to work or barriers that world prevent them from safely returning to the workplace.

You may wish to discuss the specific return to work protocols within your workplace with your own line manager/Head of Branch. Where there are issues surrounding social distancing you may need to seek further assistance from colleagues in your Departmental Health and Safety team or those in charge of facilities management of your building. Where appropriate, an individual risk assessment may be considered to support your member of staff’s return to the workplace.

Where being away from work may have impacted on your member of staff’s physical or mental health and wellbeing you should ensure they are aware of the support services available and discuss how these can be accessed if required. More information is available.

4. I am in the extremely vulnerable group of people who were advised to shield. I know that the shielding arrangements were paused from 31 July 2020. Does that mean I will have to return to work?

The position for all NICS staff remains that where you can work from home you should do so. If you have been shielding, and cannot work from home, it may be possible for you to commence an agreed, managed return to the workplace after 31 July 2020 if the risk remains low and you no longer need to follow shielding advice. Before returning to work you may wish to discuss this with your GP.

You are still considered to be vulnerable any therefore any return to work must be supported by proper measures in place to ensure you can adequately social distance both in your place of work and on your journey to work. More information on current PHA guidance for extremely vulnerable people can be found at guidance extremely vulnerable people

As advised by the Chief Medical Officer, you must stay at home until it is possible for you to observe social distancing both at work and during travel to work. You may have concerns about this and it important that you talk to your line manager about your concerns and any arrangements that need to be in place to enable your return to work.

A large number of measures have already been taken to ensure the health and wellbeing of everyone currently in the workplace and it is important that you hear about these to ease your transition back to work. Your return to work should be in line with your departmental recovery plan and an individual risk assessment should be considered to support your return to the workplace.

You will have been in regular contact with your line manager since your period of shielding commenced and your manager will arrange for your next discussion to talk about the measures in place and to take account of any preparations that are required for you to return to the workplace in cases where you cannot work from home.

There are support services that are available and which may also assist you to arrange your return to work.

5. My member of staff is in the extremely vulnerable group and has been shielding. I understand the shielding arrangements were paused from 31 July 2020. What do I need to do to support my member of staff to return to work?

The position for all NICS staff is where they can work from home then they should do so. You should make every effort to ensure that this can be accommodated for staff within the extremely vulnerable category.

Where this is not possible, it is important to note that although the shielding arrangements were paused from 31 July 2020, that people within the extremely vulnerable category are still at a higher risk from COVID-19. It is imperative that social distancing both in the workplace and on the way to work can be maintained for staff in this category. More information on current PHA guidance for extremely vulnerable people can be found at guidance extremely vulnerable people

You will have been in regular contact with your member of staff during their period of shielding. It is important that in your next discussion you talk about any concerns they may have about their agreed, managed return to work or barriers that would prevent them from safely returning to the workplace. Their return to work should be in line with your departmental recovery plan and an individual risk assessment should be considered to support their return to the workplace.

Where there are issues surrounding social distancing you may need to seek assistance from colleagues in your Departmental Health and Safety team or those in charge of facilities management of your building. Where shielding may have impacted on your member of staff’s physical or mental health and wellbeing you should ensure they are aware of the support services available and discuss how these can be accessed if required. More information is available.

6. I am in the extremely vulnerable group of people and I cannot work from home. I feel I am unable to return to the workplace because either I cannot travel safely to work or the appropriate social distancing measures cannot be facilitated within my workplace. What should I do?

As advised by the Chief Medical Officer in the letter to end your shielding, you must stay at home until it is possible for you to observe social distancing both at work and during travel to work. Where you cannot work from home, all reasonable efforts should be made to enable you to safely return to work. Where this is not possible, you should remain at home.

You will be placed on paid special leave under the COVID-19 Extremely Vulnerable category until these issues can be resolved.  You should provide evidence from your GP to state that you are unable to return to work due to your medical condition and a referral to Occupational Health Service will be arranged.

7. My member of staff is in the extremely vulnerable group of people and cannot work from home. They have provided reasons why they feel they cannot travel safely to work or that the appropriate social distancing measures are not in place within the workplace. What should I do?

It is important to note that current advice from the Chief Medical Officer is that people in the extremely vulnerable group must be able to observe social distancing during their journey to work and while attending work. Where this is not possible they should remain at home.

Your member of staff will be placed on paid special leave under the COVID-19 Extremely Vulnerable category until these issues can be resolved. They should provide evidence from their GP that they are unable to return to work due to their medical condition. You should forward this evidence to Employee Relations who will arrange a referral to Occupational Health Service.  

8. I am in the vulnerable group of people, over 70 or pregnant. NICS had advised me to stay at home and work from home where possible in line with the arrangements in place for extremely vulnerable people who were shielding. The shielding arrangements were paused from 31 July 2020. Does that mean I will have to return to work?

The position for all NICS staff remains that where you can work from home you should do so. If you have been self-isolating because you are in the vulnerable group, over 70 or pregnant and cannot work from home, it may be possible for you to commence an agreed, managed return to the workplace after 31 July 2020.

You are still considered to be at higher risk of severe illness if you contract COVID-19 and you need to be particularly careful to adhere to social distancing guidelines and other guidance to reduce your risk. More information on current PHA advice for vulnerable people can be found at Coronavirus (COVID-19) advice for vulnerable people. Before returning to work you may wish to discuss this with your GP.

You will have been in regular contact with your line manager since your period of self-isolation commenced and your manager will arrange for your next discussion to take account of any preparations that are required for you to return to the workplace in cases where you cannot work from home. Your return to work should be in line with your departmental recovery plan and an individual risk assessment should be considered to support your return to the workplace.

You may have concerns about returning to work and it important that you talk to your line manager about these and any arrangements that need to be in place to enable your return. A large number of measures have already been taken to ensure the health and wellbeing of everyone currently in the workplace and your manager will be in a position to discuss these with you to ease your transition back to work.

There are support services that are available and which may also assist you to arrange your return to work.

9. My member of staff is in the vulnerable group, over 70 or pregnant and had been self-isolating in line with the NICS policy for people in this group which mirrors that for staff who were shielding. I understand the shielding arrangements were paused from 31 July 2020. What do I need to do to support my member of staff to return to work?

The position for all NICS staff is where they can work from home then they should do so. You should make every effort to ensure that this can be accommodated for staff within the vulnerable category.

Where this is not possible, it is important to note that people within the vulnerable category are still at a higher risk from COVID-19. It is essential that they are particularly careful to adhere to social distancing guidelines and other guidance to reduce their risk. More information on current PHA advice for vulnerable people can be found at Coronavirus (COVID-19) advice for vulnerable people

You will have been in regular contact with your member of staff during their period of self-isolation. It is important that in your next discussion you talk about any concerns they may have about their agreed, managed return to work or barriers that would prevent them from safely returning to the workplace. Their return to work should be in line with your departmental recovery plan and an individual risk assessment should be considered to support their return to the workplace.

Where there are issues surrounding social distancing you may need to seek assistance from colleagues in your Departmental Health and Safety team or those in charge of facilities management of your building. Where their period of self-isolation may have impacted on your member of staff’s physical or mental health and wellbeing, you should ensure they are aware of the support services available and discuss how these can be accessed if required. More information is available.

10. I am in the vulnerable group of people and I cannot work from home. I feel I am unable to return to the workplace because the appropriate social distancing measures cannot be facilitated within my workplace. What should I do?

Where you cannot work from home, all reasonable efforts should be made to enable you to safely return to work. As you are in the vulnerable category of people you much strictly adhere to social distancing. Where this is not possible, you should remain at home.

You will remain on paid special leave under the COVID-19 Social Distancing category until these issues can be resolved.  You should provide evidence from your GP to state that you are unable to return to work due to your medical condition and a referral to Occupational Health Service will be arranged.

11. My member of staff is in the vulnerable group of people and cannot work from home. They have provided reasons why they feel that the appropriate social distancing measures are not in place within the workplace. What should I do?

It is important to note that that people in the vulnerable group must be able to strictly observe social distancing while attending work. Where this is not possible they should remain at home.

Your member of staff will remain on paid special leave under the COVID-19 Social Distancing category until these issues can be resolved. They should provide evidence from their GP that they are unable to return to work due to their medical condition. You should forward this evidence to Employee Relations who will arrange a referral to Occupational Health Service. 

12. I am returning to the workplace for the first time since lockdown. Apart from the practical, ergonomic aspects of returning, what else should I consider?

It is essential that we all adhere to social distancing measures within the workplace. There are numerous health and safety protocols in place that we must all observe in order to protect us within a shared space. It may take some time to become accustomed to the new way of working, but while we are at work we are all responsible for the health and safety of ourselves, our colleagues and our staff. Failure to adhere to these measures will be considered a serious matter.

We must also acknowledge and respect that not everyone’s perception of the risk of COVID-19 (coronavirus) is the same and that this has the potential to lead to differences of opinion and tension within the working environment. As an organisation, NICS has guiding principles to protect the dignity at work of all staff and to ensure any disagreements are dealt with in a courteous and productive manner. As more of us return to the workplace it is important to remember the high standards of behaviour that we are all expected to adhere to when dealing with each other (HR Policy 6.01 Standards of Conduct and HR Policy 6.09 Dignity at Work).

As individuals we should:

  • respect others points of view and listen to their concerns
  • accept that colleagues may have health vulnerabilities or live with people who are vulnerable to COVID-19 (coronavirus) and may be more anxious about being in the workplace
  • acknowledge that colleagues may have been affected by the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic in a way that you do not know about or that they do not feel comfortable discussing
  • not belittle, mock or raise your voice to others because you disagree with their opinion
  • avoid non work related conversation which may cause distress or negatively impact on working relationships within the office

13. I manage a team that is returning to the workplace for the first time since lockdown. Apart from the practical, ergonomic aspects of returning, what else should I consider?

As an individual member of staff you should refer to the guidance given in Q7 above.

In addition, as a manager you should also:

  • always be alert to how social distancing is working within your team
  • set a good example by closely adhering to the social distancing guidance in the workplace
  • be approachable and supportive - talk to your staff about any concerns they may have about returning to work or being in the workplace
  • be aware of any tension within your team and deal with this informally and at the earliest opportunity
  • continue to be as flexible as possible with regards to homeworking and working arrangements

14. I am required to come into work, but I have concerns around my health and well-being.

It is important that you discuss your concerns openly and honestly with your line manager at the earliest opportunity. Staff must be allowed to abide by social distancing measures in the workplace and while you are at work your business area should seek to take all steps to protect you by:

  • ensuring staff stay 2 metres apart;
  • putting in place rotas that ensure appropriate social distancing can be maintained;
  • putting working hours/patterns/shifts/ rotas in place that minimise time in the office and use of public transport; and
  • the use of technology as much as possible to minimise time in office.

For further advice please see COVID-19 (coronavirus)

In addition, further guidance on safety in the workplace can be found on the HSENI website.

15. What happens if someone on my team has refused to attend work because of concerns for their health and well-being?

Should a member of your staff refuse to comply with a specific management request to attend work you should discuss with them their reasons for refusal and work with them to seek a solution.  The Department may choose to treat this as unauthorised absence.

16. I am travelling for approved work reasons, do I need to take any special precautions now?

Yes, you should follow the online guidance published by the Public Health Agency (PHA) website www.publichealth.hscni.net.

If you have returned from international travel from Monday 8 June, new rules for entering or returning to the UK become law:

Health protection coronavirus international travel regulations NI

Full details and advice for returning travellers can be found here: Coronavirus (COVID-19): travel advice

17. I am travelling to work and am concerned about the availability and use of public transport. What should I do?

If you are using public transport, please remember to continue to practice social distancing measures and if possible vary your travel to avoid peak times. You should also be aware that the wearing of face coverings on most buses, trains and ferries will be mandatory in Northern Ireland from 10 July 2020.

If you experience difficulties due to travel disruption you could consider working from an office location closer to home (if possible).

Also see Q2 in Social Distancing section and Q10 and Q11 in the COVID-19 (coronavirus) symptoms section for more information on wearing face coverings.

If you have any further concerns regarding the safety and reliability of public transport, please discuss this with your line manager.

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