What would a second Covid-19 wave mean for HR?

27 Aug 2020 By Jessica Brown

People Management asks people professionals and employment law experts how businesses should ready themselves in the event that lockdown measures are reintroduced

When the UK first went into lockdown in March, employers faced huge uncertainties as the government locked the country down. While most of these restrictions are starting to ease, the pandemic is far from over and prime minister Boris Johnson has been at pains to stress that measures will be reintroduced if needed. Already, there have been several ‘local lockdowns’ in areas across the UK that have seen localised increases in Covid-19 cases, including Leicester, Aberdeen and parts of Greater Manchester.

The spectre of a second national spike still looms large over employers and, while firms are arguably more prepared than they were the first time round, another lockdown and the uncertainty that brings would not be without its challenges. What would happen, for example, to the furlough scheme – ministers have already ruled out any extension past its planned end date in October.

People Management spoke to industry experts to find out what a second wave could mean for HR departments, and what they can do to prepare now.

A second spike will hinder plans to return to normal

Employers need to factor in the possibility that a sudden rise in infection rates could threaten plans to return to ‘business as normal’, warns David Price, chief executive of Health Assured. “Especially for organisations that have had to remain shut throughout the lockdown,” he says.

Businesses should also expect employees, clients and customers to be less tolerant of coronavirus-related disruption the second time around. However, there are various things employers should consider to ready themselves for a possible second spike; for example, reviewing employees’ contracts to ensure they are inherently flexible. “This might include inserting layoff clauses, or giving the company an express right to require an individual to work from home,” says Matt McDonald, senior associate at Pinsent Masons.

Karen Meager, organisational psychologist and co-founder of Monkey Puzzle Training and Consultancy, warns that while a second wave could see levels of depression and anxiety “skyrocket” among some staff, there will also be those who become complacent. “A key challenge for HR will be managing the tension between these two,” she says.

Employers can help prevent a second wave

To help mitigate the likelihood and impact of a second spike, organisations are being asked by the government to take measures including avoiding face-to-face seating arrangements in offices; reducing the number of employees in enclosed spaces; improving ventilation; and installing protective screens. “By implementing stringent health and safety measures and ensuring their workplace is Covid secure, employers can help to prevent future spikes in infection rates,” says Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the CIPD.

And organisational psychologist Roxane Gervais adds that businesses should carry out a risk assessment that considers their employees’ work patterns and how they should be changed to ensure social distancing is possible – especially for staff who find themselves working in enclosed spaces.

“Employers have to check in with staff that they are comfortable with all changes, and if they require any further steps to be in place. Staff will know what is working well and what is not,” she says.

Gervais adds that workplaces should be cleaned throughout the day as well as at the end of the day. 

Employee wellbeing will continue to be a priority

It’s understandable that many employees will be concerned about transmission of the virus in the physical workplace, says Suff. “CIPD research shows that anxiety levels about a return to work have not subsided. HR should encourage line managers to have ongoing one-to-one conversations with people in their teams and discuss concerns.”

Ngozi Weller, co-founder of Aurora Wellness, says companies need to be flexible and consider each employee’s individual circumstances to help support their mental health. “What we’re going through, emotionally and mentally, is the same as the grief cycle, where everyone approaches it at different stages at any given time,” she says. “Treating everyone the same doesn’t mean you’re treating everyone fairly.”

Weller adds that employers are likely to be entering “another 12 months of uncertainty” and that employee wellbeing is crucial. This might mean making arrangements to continue working from home, facilitating a return to the office, allowing flexible hours or even providing counselling. Ultimately, Weller encourages employers to see it as a positive challenge. 

“This is an opportunity to rethink what it means for a company to operate in the best interest of its people, and HR is the vanguard of this – it’s a powerful position to be in, and it should relish the opportunity,” she says.

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