Last reviewed 7 March 2022

As the situation in Ukraine continues, this is going to be an extremely difficult time for some employees who are personally affected by the events reported in Ukraine and for employees who may be concerned about the implications from a wider perspective.

Practically, there is also the potential for serious disruption to business operations, as the UK Government has effectively banned all imports and exports from UK ports that involve Russia. This will disrupt the supply chain for many organisations and could lead to staff lay offs where this results to stock or manufacturing material shortages resulting in insufficient work.

Who in the business might need help?

This will not necessarily be limited to Ukrainian/Russian nationals; employees of all nationalities may have family/friends in Ukraine and will understandably be feeling a range of emotions that can cause them to become distracted and in need of support at work. Russian employees may also fear reprisals in their homeland and for the safety of friends and family in Russia.

Those with no direct connection may be concerned about how events may progress internationally. The news coverage of the conflict is unavoidable and this can lead to heightened stress and anxiety levels, particularly amongst employees already susceptible to this.

What help can employers offer?

Acting swiftly in mobilising whatever support is already available, and introducing it where it is not, will maximise the effectiveness of any actions employers take. This can start with sending a company-wide message to all employees offering support and reminding them of how to access it via the workplace.

Managers will need to be prepared to have potentially difficult conversations with staff and be on watch for signs that these events are taking a particular toll on individuals. For organisations that have them, this is a time for mental health first aiders to utilise their skills. Raising staff awareness of what mental health first aiders do and how they can help will encourage their use.

Employers can also provide signposts to external support that can be accessed. A reminder of the availability of EAP, where employers offer this, would be appropriate in this situation. This could be helpful for anyone at all who is worried about what’s happening and the potential ramifications of it around the world. Beyond EAP, there are other, free to access, support providers such as mental health charities that may be of assistance.

Any support that is provided needs to be in line with the individual’s needs. This starts with a conversation: talk to employees and encourage managers to do so, to find out who needs what. This is an unprecedented situation; it is impossible to know how individuals will react, and therefore what their support needs will be, without having these conversations.

Employees with family in Ukraine and/or Russia

Employees with family and friends in Ukraine and/or Russia who are concerned for their welfare are likely to want to keep in regular contact with their loved ones. Employers should consider how they can support affected staff to do this. Employees may wish to make/accept personal phone calls during working time, so allowing them to move their lunch break, slightly adjust their working hours, or to have more frequent breaks, may help them more easily keep in contact with friends and family. Where these requests are made, employers should carefully consider how they might accommodate them.

Employee relations

Employees may have opposing views on what’s happening, so employers should instil their policy on bullying and harassment. If there is a risk of arguments between employees because of nationalities or different viewpoints, employees can be advised to use the organisation’s channels to talk about the events and how they are affected. Reminding all employees of the organisations zero tolerance stance on bullying and harassment may be necessary, as well as urging all to be considerate of others’ views should the topic of the conflict come up.

Many employees are likely to feel powerless at this time, and faced with the distressing images coming from Ukraine, want to do something to help. Organisations who wish to offer support to those in Ukraine, for example, by arranging collections of clothing and other essential items, should ensure that this is done in an inclusive way that does not discriminate on the ground of nationality. Partnering with local charities can help with this process and ensure what is needed gets to where it is needed most.

Travel to Russia and/or Ukraine

Any employers who had plans to send employees to Russia and/or Ukraine on business should make other arrangements. Employers have a duty of care to employees and sending them to these countries may place them in very unsafe conditions. Many flights between Russia and the UK have already been stopped. Employees who do find a way to travel to Russia may find that their way back is closed and themselves stranded in a potentially unsafe situation. A safer option may be to hold any business meetings remotely.

Employees in Russia and/or Ukraine

Organisations may have employees working for them who are permanently located in Russia or Ukraine. The employer’s duty of care extends to these employees so regular communication should be maintained and discussions held as a matter of urgency around how the employee is affected and what support can be provided.

Employees wanting to go to Ukraine to volunteer

Employees with ties to Ukraine, and possibly some without, may feel compelled to travel there and help, either with the resistance, or to provide humanitarian aid. Where this is the case, employers will need to carefully consider this request. Placing an outright ban on this is unlikely to go down well from an employee relations perspective. It is also likely to be unreasonable and unenforceable.

Employers faced with these requests might consider treating this the same as they would a sabbatical. Reference to a sabbatical policy would be useful here and the arrangements for their time away and return to work. Of course, we do not know how long this situation will continue, so a definite end date may not be possible at this point, but discussing with the employee an initial period and means to stay in touch, will at least add some clarity to the situation. Alternatively, a short-term solution is to agree annual leave or a short period of unpaid leave. It is essential that any agreement includes a means of contact with the individual, such as a forwarding address, email, telephone, or someone that any documentation can be sent to, care of the employee.

Employers facing this situation should be reminded that normal dismissal rules apply in this situation and that any dismissal would have to be done fairly. A key component to that would appear to be the length of the absence and how an employer may or may not be able to manage that absence.

Some Ukraine nationals may be required to return to the country to join their military efforts. Whilst UK laws on reservists do not apply to them, treating them in the same way as a UK reservist is likely to be the most reasonable course of action, and allowing them to go and return to their same job will be the fairest approach.

Business impact

As already mentioned, one aspect of the conflict in Ukraine is the increasing number of sanctions being placed on Russia and Russian businesses. This is going to have a knock-on effect to the alcohol wholesalers who can no longer sell their Russian vodka and to the timber merchants no longer able to access their usual supply of wood. This may mean having to return to using lay-off clauses that are in employee’s contracts or agreeing a temporary reduction in hours where there isn’t enough work. How long this will go on for, we cannot know, but finding temporary solutions for now is going to be important.

Alternatives to lay-off could be giving employees alternative duties or agreeing a period of leave with them in the hope it will end soon. Treating all employees fairly is going to be of critical importance, making sure the impact of this is spread fairly throughout the workforce (where practical to do so).

An unprecedented situation

This is something we are hearing repeatedly with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What it means for employers is that they are going to have to adapt what they already have in place to support their staff and their business. Many organisations already have the tools they need to do this and those that don’t now have an added incentive to get them in place.