COVID absence management due to isolation and long term sickness will bring fresh costs and challenges
As England prepares to unlock, many business leaders are breathing a sigh of relief. With the end of work from home recommendations, many are planning to bring workers back to deserted workspaces, and others looking forward to building back to a more normal level of operations.
It may not be quite as simple as that.
There are some fresh costs, challenges, and complications on the horizon that many have not fully considered. Not the least of these come from the projections of a steep rise in COVID infections, which will bring with it an equally steep rise in the number of people isolating.
There are signs of this already emerging this week – with more than 500,000 people receiving NHS app ‘pings’ instructing them to isolate due to COVID exposure. The Unite union warns that some factories may have to close if this continues – and major manufacturers are agreeing.
Whether employers face direct issues of isolating staff, or those unable to work due to younger members of their families ill or in isolation, the net effect of the new wave will not only be an enormous absence management challenge, but also bring other issues.
The size of the COVID absence management challenge
If new infections reach 100,000 per day as feared, a significant proportion of those will be among working age adults.
Even fully vaccinated workers may still catch, and transmit, the virus.
It could drive an unavoidable deluge of absence calls to HR, line managers and outsourced absence services.
If employers are not to be caught unawares, they must plan quickly. Absence management is often treated as an isolated process, an HR task, or something left to line managers. Now, COVID is changing the dynamics.
COVID is not just affecting absence management but bringing myriad new health and safety control challenges such as risk assessments and COVID lateral flow testing. An increasingly vaccinated working population, with future boosters likely, brings fresh health status monitoring issues.
Employers must remain acutely aware of the health status of their staff, and of the ongoing risk of infection, both in the workplace and in employees’ home lives.
They will need far better visibility of employee health status and absence levels, greater control over related information and improved Occupational Health reactivity if they are to cope.
It needs a ‘whole organisation’ response that engages leaders and line managers alike. It will require employers to tool up to manage employee health and its impacts in a much more connected way.
Counting the ongoing cost of COVID sickness absence
Absence costs could skyrocket with the approaching absence wave. These come not just from lost productivity, but also the cost of replacement staff or cost of overtime for employees who take up the slack. Employers are usually well aware of these costs – even if they struggle to quantify them.
COVID is compounding the ‘standard’ cost of a 10-day absence.
Our understanding of long-COVID is still emerging, but if recent estimates are correct, it could bring a whole new set of costs. The REACT-2 study suggests that a full third of COVID sufferers still have symptoms 12 weeks later, and that 5.8% of infections may result in longer term symptoms. Some estimates suggest there may be residual symptoms for up to 25% of people, after even a mild COVID bout.
Dealing with COVID absences from a new spike of infections is likely to bring a long-term sickness absence challenge. Based on recent findings, 100k infections per day could generate 5,800 new long-COVID cases per day or even more.
This is not just a challenge for the NHS. COVID absence management is a huge challenge for employers who will need to manage Returns to Work very carefully, prepare for longer-term Occupational Health support properly, and manage around many more long-term absences than they are used to.
Health data to drive informed decisions
Most enterprises utilise a combination of office and business software to run their operations. Each is designed for its specific role, including the HR management systems on which personnel and payroll management depend. However, none of these are designed to handle employee health management or connect related data to critical workflows across the organisation.
Even the absence tracking and OH management solutions that are utilised by external service providers are only point solutions. They are not designed to connect data or deliver the real-time perspective on employee health that will be needed by leaders. They do not smoothly inform or enable line managers to make real-time rostering decisions. Plus, they bring additional problems of isolated and invisible silos of information that employers increasingly need to make informed decisions.
Investing for employee health management
So far, the momentum and opportunities from double-vaccination and the inconvenience of isolation have rather dominated media narratives. The cost to employers is potentially far more significant – yet, the practical and operational challenges of employee health management are often going unnoticed.
In this wave it will be vital to understand the real-time reality of absences and swiftly connect information into effective workflows to support both staff and the business. Health surveillance and effective management of employee health data will be key to managing individual and workforce-wide risk. While operations require agile and effective management of all the practicalities of COVID risk reduction via risk assessment, testing and vaccination status monitoring.
It has never been as vital as it is today to support and sustain employee health actively and comprehensively.
Not just through providing reactive support via EAPs, but by investing in platforms that enable proactive, integrated, fully connected management of all the workflows related to employee health, including delivering effective, connected OH support. It will help organisations create the visibility they need to manage both absence and the cost of absence in the coming months and sustain workforce presence and performance in these challenging times.
The Empactis Employee Health Management System is the only complete, connected, and seamlessly integrated solution for managing employee health and absence across any business – contact us today to arrange a demonstration.