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Extreme weather: should HR have an adverse weather policy?

Extreme weather patterns like storms or heatwaves are becoming more common -

Autumn 2023 marked one of the most turbulent seasons for weather in UK history.

Over the space of two months, the UK experienced a rapid shift between a scorching heatwave and the arrival of two major storms – Babet and Ciarán – which has claimed lives and caused a huge amount of damage to homes and businesses.

But the reality is that extreme weather is becoming the norm in the UK.

The kind of volatile weather patterns witnessed towards the end of 2023 will become standard as ongoing climate change affects the world around us. 

Read more: A how-to guide to recruiting 'climate snubbers'

While the wider economic impact of such extreme weather remains unknown, the immediate impact is continuing to ripple across businesses throughout the UK.

Recent research has suggested that for the first time, businesses are more concerned about extreme weather affecting operations than they are about cyber-attacks.

Risk management provider, Healix, found that of all extreme weather events, businesses are most concerned about extreme heat and the affect it has on employees (73%), followed by heavy rainfall and flooding (37%).

Almost three quarters of businesses said they had already been directly affected by weather conditions such as these.

With such unpredictable weather at play, organisations are being urged to consider the implications to business, as well as employees and HR policy.

“It could be wise to develop contingency plans as part of a risk management approach, particularly if the organisation’s core operations rely heavily on its workforce delivering services and/or need to be physically present,” Rachel Suff, wellbeing and employee relations adviser at the CIPD, says.

The Government of Jersey is one example of an organisation that’s already providing employees with a range of flexible working policies with weather in mind.

Mark Grimley, the government’s chief people and transformation officer, explains the organisation needed to be particularly flexible following the impact of Storm Ciarán.

“The island was particularly hit hard, including 100mph-plus winds and a level T6 tornado.

“This meant we had to ask our workforce to work from home the day before and the days following as we focused on the response and clear-up,” he says. 

“We were conscious that some employees’ properties would have been badly impacted, and some made homeless, so we used discretion to allow people time to respond, and then flexibility as they needed to take time with the mire of paperwork for insurers.”

There is technically no legal requirement for employers to have a weather policy in place for employees, but there obviously are legal obligations that cover the health and safety of workers – a factor at risk during the height of extreme weather conditions. 

Adverse weather also lends itself to the risk of employees demanding to be paid for jobs they are simply unable to attend.

To mitigate such risks, lawyers suggest employers be proactive in sending out updates to staff when weather alerts are made.

“Although the onus is on employees to turn up for work on time, proactive employers would send out updates to all staff when weather alerts are made,” Bryony Goldspink, partner and specialist in retail and employment law at legal firm Gordons explains.

She states: “If there is official guidance to avoid all but necessary travel during extreme weather conditions, then employers should not force employees to come into work.

“Employers could remind employees to adjust their commuting plans. Alternatively, if they are on a hybrid working arrangement, employers could suggest employees alter their days in the office around the anticipated disruption and its immediate aftermath.”

Read more: Making the right call on hybrid work

For those whose jobs make it impossible for them to work from home, such as those working in agriculture, construction or transport industries, employers are urged to explore other flexible options, such as allowing people to stagger their start and finish times to avoid travelling and working at peak times, when disruption is likely to be most present, or during the hottest times of the day.

“If employees are given notice but persistently fail to make alternative arrangements, or if the adverse weather conditions have passed, then this could potentially become a disciplinary matter on the grounds of misconduct,” Goldspink adds. 

“However, as with all conduct issues, it is important that any disciplinary matters are dealt with consistently.”

While developing a weather guide can certainly help to pre-empt any potential damages caused by extreme weather conditions, the CIPD suggests that rather than making “sweeping decisions on issues like pay,” businesses should “aim to balance individual needs with the needs of the organisation” and put health and safety at the forefront.

“Health and safety concerns should always be a priority, particularly in relation to higher temperatures in summer. While there’s no specific legal minimum or maximum temperature for workplaces in the UK, employers need to make sure the temperature is reasonable and provide clean and fresh air,” Suff says.

“The heat can affect people’s level of concentration and cause fatigue, which may have health and safety implications for people working in some jobs such as safety-critical roles.

"Employers should be particularly mindful of people with a disability or health condition as extreme weather conditions such as heat can make them particularly vulnerable.”

Read more: Support hidden health conditions to combat soaring absence

The Government of Jersey has opted to retain a discretionary and flexible approach throughout the year, which helps to mitigate disruption when crisis hits.

“Where possible, people can flex their hours, provided services are still delivered to standards,” Grimley says.

“Flexible working often considers the individual needs, but I have found it works better when looking at the benefits to teams, especially those who are customer facing or have less flexibility. A team-flex approach can be very impactful, build a team culture and foster a focus on productivity.”

One thing we know about weather in the UK is that it is extremely unpredictable; the ever-changing nature of the climate and the increasingly random occurrence of disruptive storms doesn’t lend itself to planning.

But as the frequency of seemingly abnormal weather continues, employers will need to act now to help weather the storm further down the line.

This article appears in the November/December 2023 print issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.