Why employers may have to wait for test-based confirmation of immunity for workforce planning and what that means for managing returns to work
The difficulty and delay being faced by the Government in validating any antibody test may be raising the already heightened anxiety levels of business leaders across the UK.
At the time of writing, it seems clear that lockdown will continue in some form for some time. Yet the discussion of ‘exit’ strategy is now underway. Some organisations are therefore daring to dream that a peak in cases may be imminent and that this might just give them the ability to plan a slow return to whatever the new normal might be. They cannot yet prepare for a full post-pandemic return to work – but at least are hoping for a time when debilitating absence and furlough levels may start to recede.
The hope is that once there is reliable a way to check for post-COVID-19 antibodies, especially if that can be via a simple, self-administered serologic blood test, some workers can return to work faster and with less concern about future infection. Although it is important to recognise that, even if a reliable test does suggest the presence of antibodies, there is no evidence base for what level of immunity is conferred or how long that might last.
Potentially, antibody testing could progressively support a more predictable and reliable attendance level upon which organisations could base operational planning, predict productivity, and execute their business continuity strategies.
Reliability of antibody tests and immunity remain unclear
Governments and businesses worldwide are hoping successful tests will ‘reignite’ economies once more, gradually releasing consumers and business buyers out of lockdown as well as workers. Unfortunately, there are some significant problems to overcome:
- The quest for a reliable antibody test has a way to go. Despite recent assurances of millions of tests on the way, reliability studies conducted by Public Health England are failing to find an effective test. The spectre of false-positive results indicating the presence of antibodies (and thus a successfully fought virus) holds the potential for disaster, should infected staff return to critical workforces. False negative results may also impact badly as high rates could prevent potentially immune workers returning too.
- Second, confirmation of such a test may not immediately enable wide uptake. Despite distribution discussions via third parties such as Amazon, there production time-lag to consider, and there remain concerns about the model itself. Medical professionals have raised some issues, including some potential for fraud, and thus the need for licensing and regulatory approval, and advice that a qualified person may be essential in test administration for any immunity ‘certification’.
- Last, and not least, the presence of COVID-19 antibodies is not proven to prevent second infection. Certainty will take time and studies to confirm. The prevailing view is that immediate re- infections are highly unlikely, but this remains conjecture, complicated further by some concerns around the potential for relapse after recovery.
The implication for employers
In the immediate term, the biggest issue remains with healthcare and other key workers, where essential services depend on maintaining specific levels of staffing. The implications in care extend far into the community. Meanwhile organisations in retail, food production, manufacturing and warehousing/logistics must sustain what are now essential public services. Key utilities and numerous government services must continue. However, high absence levels among these groups present clear barriers to sustaining essential services.
In the absence of other options, it falls to employers to continue to work hard to manage the absences of staff very carefully, especially in how they manage returns to work.
Unless or until reliable antibody tests and a supporting administrative process can ‘certify’ the recovered health of staff and accelerate their return to the workforce, the best and only route for employers to get people back to work is to establish clear policies, good processes, and help every line manager to engage carefully and consistently around each employee’s health.
How can employers support faster return to work without tests?
In the absence of dedicated platforms, employers can still take several good practice steps to encourage staff return to work at a time that is appropriate to protect their health and that of colleagues, but without any avoidable delay. They include:
- Carefully logging not just absence but the reasons for every individual’s absence to build and maintain a clear picture of the return to work challenge.
- Creating and communicating clear policies for line managers to engage appropriately with employees around their health and absence.
- Providing line managers and team leaders with clear expectations around their role and contribution in managing returns to work.
- Giving line managers a second line of support via HR business partners or Occupational Health service providers, to provide additional advice when needed, and clear routes to escalate any problems or refer a case on to a specialist.
- Recognising that the concerns staff may have about returning to work will often extend beyond whether they are physically ready to return. Social and mental health factors may include anxiety about personal exposure to risk upon return to the workplace, and about whether working outside the home could bring risk to vulnerable or shielded household members. Staff may also have ongoing caring responsibilities to consider.
- Building engagement pathways that incorporate correct current expert guidance about the disease and isolation timelines, so line managers take actions and make calls to employees promptly and at the right time.
- Assuring that operating workplaces, whether these are vehicles, checkouts, manufacturing plants or construction sites, are continuously reviewed and adjusted in line with official advice to be as clean, safe and risk-free as possible.
Business and industry organisations are hard at work pushing for action on testing. Yet putting pressure on the authorities will neither speed the building of lab capacity, nor alter the scientific challenges of securing an antibody test that actually works. Going out with a less-than-accurate test would be hugely counterproductive. It would almost certainly feed the creation of a second COVID-19 wave of infections.
The very best thing employers can do at this time is to follow Government advice and meet their duty of care to their employees about their health and safety as they engage with them to help as many of them return to work and to be as productive as possible.
The pandemic is making leaders increasingly aware of the importance of considering employee health at the core of strategy for all organisations.
Having good policies and processes for managing not only absence but engagement with staff around their health has become business critical now, as never before. However, policies and process alone, will not work without a platform to support managers at every level of the organisation. It must be one that brings together, in real time, the vital data that leaders need to make decisions at board level to plan a return to more normal working and to look after their workforce in the meantime.
Empactis is proud to be working, as a partner with its clients to surface this real time data from our unique platform, to help them manage this difficult time. We continue to follow all aspects of the COVID-19 situation, including testing developments and are have been releasing regular updates to our platform to help clients keep pace with the changing scenarios.
If you need help, Empactis has a rapid deployment solution for Covid-19 test and absence management and can provide advice and support around best practice. Call us now for an informal discussion.
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