Legal

The long-term impact of Covid on the workplace

12 Nov 2020 By Daniella McGuigan

Danielle McGuigan examines the detrimental effects of the pandemic on areas such as employee mental and physical health, training, skills and equality

The coronavirus crisis has had a devastating impact on the UK jobs market, with an increase in redundancies and uncertainty that has left livelihoods at risk. It’s paramount that the government understands what impact this could have on the long-term mental and physical health of employees, and if it has detrimentally affected their career development. It’s also important to analyse whether this has hampered efforts to close the gender, disability and ethnicity pay gaps. 

The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee has launched an inquiry into employment and Covid-19 to analyse the pandemic’s impact on the UK workforce and what urgent measures should be taken to protect and create jobs.

The impact on the mental health of workers has not been as closely examined as the risks to physical health associated with Covid-19, but it is widely reported that charities focusing on mental health have seen a surge in demand during the pandemic; job insecurity and financial worries are cited as the primary causes for concern. 

With the UK again in national lockdown and winter approaching, this trend is expected to get worse. There is also the possibility of a long-term negative impact on employees’ physical health when working away from the employer’s premises. Businesses have less control over the health and safety of their employees in their home environment where equipment is not always provided, readily available or correctly used.

Long-term remote working may have negative effects on training employees and particularly on training new and/or inexperienced members of staff who cannot, so readily, observe, ask, learn and be taught – this in turn can impact career development. 

More generally, there should be the consideration of the provision of more grants and incentives for employers to support training and placements – not just for employees at the start of their career (such as the recently announced Kickstart scheme) but throughout employment. 

The pandemic is likely to result in some existing roles disappearing and new ones emerging, meaning there will be a greater need for employees to retrain to fill existing skills gaps and to develop new skills for sectors that are recruiting. The apprenticeship levy could be reformed and potentially broadened into a ‘skills levy’ that employers could use more flexibly. 

There is also some evidence that the effects of the pandemic are more keenly felt by more vulnerable parts of the workforce, which risks accentuating issues like the gender, disability and ethnicity pay gaps. For example, just two weeks before the annual 4 April 2020 deadline for private sector businesses to publish their gender pay gap statistics, the UK government announced that, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, there would be no mandatory requirement to report gender pay gap data in 2020. Many businesses opted out when the legal requirement was lifted, and this could indicate a worrying sign of attitudes towards gender equality during the crisis.

The response to the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that employers can adapt and offer remote and flexible-working arrangements, which may support both men and women in a manner that promotes greater equality across their working practices. If handled well, these measures could have a positive impact by reducing the gender pay gap going forward. Flexible working can be a means of creating as well as protecting jobs (especially for more vulnerable members of the workforce). 

With information from the inquiry it is hoped the government may be able to mitigate the negative consequences for employees and protect more vulnerable parts of the workforce, while not putting undue burdens on employers and business owners during this challenging time. 

Daniella McGuigan is a member of the Employment Lawyers Association and a partner at Ogletree Deakins

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