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After the bushfires: helping employees get back to work

Businesses may need to make temporary arrangements for employees before operations return to normal.
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After the bushfires: helping employees get back to work

After the bushfires: helping employees get back to work

17 February 2020

Many employees who have suffered losses in the recent bushfires in Australia will need support, both practical and emotional, to help them return to work. In addition, businesses may need to make some temporary arrangements for employees before operations return fully to normal.

Short-term arrangements

Greater flexibility and discretion with work arrangements may enable employees to return to work in at least some capacity either while dealing with their own bushfire-related issues or while awaiting the workplace to be restored to normal.

The options include:
  • working from home arrangements, if the employee’s home is suitable for work and the workplace is not
  • working in other locations, eg if the business has other branch offices, or it can hire temporary office space
  • flexibility with notice periods for various types of leave
  • granting discretionary paid or unpaid leave
  • alternative working hours arrangements
  • changing rosters to allow a bunch of rostered days off to be taken in quick succession
  • providing different types of work, eg related to work site clean-up and business restoration activities
  • review on-the-job travel arrangements so that employees can avoid travel to bushfire-damaged areas, and
  • if the organisation has a volunteer leave program, allow employees to access this to perform community clean-up work
Note that you should check that the above arrangements are allowed by the employee’s award, agreement or individual employment contract before implementing them. You should also document any temporary arrangements made.

You could also consider appointing a recovery team to coordinate return to work and resumption of normal business operations. The leader of this team needs to maintain regular contact with all employees to explain how arrangements will work and what conditions employees will be employed under during the recovery period. Even without such a team, regular employee briefings during this period will be essential.

Working from home

Before allowing this to occur, you need to consider the following issues:
  • Whether the employee’s home is safe to work in – you also need to inform the employee what OHS issues need to be covered. Note also that employees working from home are still covered for workers compensation.
  • Insurance arrangements.
  • Business information security and confidentiality must be protected.
  • Communication arrangements with the employee re work issues
  • Who is responsible for payment of expenses such as electricity, phone calls, etc.

Providing employees with financial and emotional support

Employers do not usually have a legal obligation to support employees in these ways although, again, the instruments that form the contracts of employment should be checked for any relevant provisions. However, as is the case with other personal problems that may affect employees, it is in an employer’s best interests to have employees returning to full productivity as early as possible. Quite apart from that, it is a compassionate thing to do, and likely to be rewarded with greater loyalty.

The flexible work arrangements listed above can help employees deal with the outside issues, eg bushfire damage to their own homes and other possessions, in a less stressful way.

It may be possible to provide employees with direct financial support in the form of individual cash grants or loans. Donations by businesses towards bushfire relief funds will also be welcomed.

If the organisation already provides access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), remind employees that it is available and emphasise that access to it is confidential. An EAP can provide employees with counselling (in this case, trauma counselling will be important) and practical advice and assistance. Although retaining individual confidentiality, an employer should also consult with the EAP provider for practical advice on how to assist employees.

Both individual and group counselling may be beneficial, depending on circumstances.

Note that some employees may not have been directly affected by the bushfires but may, as part of their jobs (eg field staff), come into contact with people who have, and be emotionally affected by what they encounter. Others may be unaffected themselves, but have relatives or friends who were, and feel obligated to help them. Both these groups should also be assisted where possible.

Line managers should keep an eye on employees who have been affected by the bushfires and have regular informal conversations with them, both to offer support (even if it is just a sympathetic ear) and to ensure that they are coping OK. The manager should follow up on any indications that an employee is struggling to cope, eg by considering temporary variation of work arrangements, allowing the employee to take some form of leave, or encouraging him/her to seek assistance from the EAP.

Find out what forms of government assistance are available to employees (eg websites, hotlines, locally-available assistance packages), so that you can direct them to the sources and assist them to apply for help. For example, the Federal Government has recently announced both a financial support assistance package for Councils and extra funding of mental health support services for firefighters, emergency services workers, individuals and communities.

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