Managing staff in turbulent times

Sonya Black, LLB (Hons), B.Com, Special Counsel – Employment Law, Avant Law, QLD

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Receptionist handing something to patient over counter

Unprecedented, rollercoaster, maelstrom … from cyber-attacks to bushfires to COVID-19, it is hard to talk about the experiences the last few months have brought to many practices without descending into cliché.

The next challenge that some practice managers are facing is getting staff back to the workplace.

Negotiating solutions with anxious staff may feel like it is taking up too much time when there are so many other issues to focus on. However, you have probably already realised that a manager’s role changes during a crisis. Instead of operations focused it becomes a support and communication role.

Experts on crisis management agree that to manage a team successfully through a crisis, focusing on people is the most important thing for the business.

So – what does that mean for practice managers managing staff and transitioning them back to the workplace?

You could be tempted to direct staff to return to the workplace, but that could be problematic from a legal and management perspective. Working with your team to come up with a negotiated approach is likely to result in better solutions and a stronger team.

Legal limitations on ordering compliance

As the employer, you can require employees to comply with a lawful and reasonable direction. However, whether a direction to return to the workplace is lawful and reasonable, will depend on current work health and safety requirements, and the employee’s circumstances.

Work health and safety legislation requires an employer and its workers to ensure, as far as possible, the health and safety of the workers and others – including ensuring the employer adheres to current COVID-19 safe workplace principles. Issues to consider are cleaning, physical distancing, availability of necessary PPE, whether workers are considered vulnerable or are required to self-isolate.

Employers are required to ensure the physical and psychological health and safety of workers – recognising that many employees may be suffering mental health conditions, stress and anxiety because of one or multiple events.

Avoiding discrimination

Staff may face issues returning to the workplace for a variety of reasons. They may need to self-isolate, be vulnerable or need to care for a vulnerable person, experiencing distress or mental health issues and therefore unable to return.

Discrimination against an employee, on grounds including disability, carer’s responsibilities, and pregnancy is prohibited. Make sure you fully understand the reasons behind an employee’s concern and take care to avoid discrimination when making decisions about returning to the workplace.

Varying duties

If your employee can work from home and take on different duties, this should be considered. As a rule, you cannot unilaterally change their duties or require them to take on another person’s duties. You can only do so with their consent.

You may need to re-assess the key performance indicators for staff who are working from home, to reassure yourself and them that they continue to be held accountable. For example, you can have a conversation about what they can achieve while working from home, and then discuss that with them at the end of each week.

You must document key decisions made and the reasons why.

Consultation is key

You must consult with your workers when developing risk management strategies. Ideally, an agreement should be reached with workers on how they can reasonably and safely work, and keep themselves and their families safe as this will be a better long-term strategy than issuing directions.

Tackling the problem as a team might also lead to more creative solutions. Practical options include ‘workforce splitting’, where only half the workforce is in the office at a time, to increase physical distancing and reduce the risk of all staff being exposed if someone becomes unwell.

This could also be an opportunity for staff to work out of the office to review and update practice documentation or procedures, patient information or practice websites.

Self-care and leading by example

Leaders can easily burn themselves out during a crisis by focusing on operational decisions, and trying to ‘command and control’ their way out of a rapidly evolving situation. One key to success is to establish guidelines for others to make decisions and delegate as much as possible.

Being willing to assist with workload and help when necessary can be very powerful but burning yourself out and expecting everyone else to do the same is unhelpful. Leading by example means you are consciously taking breaks, eating lunch, taking care of yourself and encouraging staff to do the same.

Building stronger teams

Healthcare workers in many parts of world have reported increased morale during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are attributing this to a feeling that silos have broken down and staff are working together. Others are feeling buoyed by community support. While team videos may not be an appropriate solution for your workplace, bringing your team together (virtually if not yet physically) and working through solutions together is likely to provide a stronger result.

More information

If you require advice on employment issues, contact us on 1800 128 268, available 24/7 in emergencies.



This publication is not comprehensive and does not constitute legal or medical advice. You should seek legal or other professional advice before relying on any content, and practise proper clinical decision making with regard to the individual circumstances. Persons implementing any recommendations contained in this publication must exercise their own independent skill or judgement or seek appropriate professional advice relevant to their own particular practice. Compliance with any recommendations will not in any way guarantee discharge of the duty of care owed to patients and others coming into contact with the health professional or practice. Avant is not responsible to you or anyone else for any loss suffered in connection with the use of this information. Information is only current at the date initially published.

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