Why coronavirus has reinforced the importance of managing sickness absence

sickness absence

Employers need effective processes for managing, reporting and recording all absences, all the time – not just when we’re worrying about a new virus

Corona virus, now known as COVID-19, is all over the news, all the time, at the moment. 

That there is widespread concern is unsurprising. That employers do not already have a clear approach to this, should be.  

As businesses assess the impacts and risks, both economic and in terms of people, they are undoubtedly worrying about things like: how will they know if someone is ill? What if someone comes in with the virus? What responsibilities do they have?  And so on.  

As we recently wrote, the reality is that corona virus is not a reason to panic.  

However, it is an excellent reason to ensure that as an employer your absence management processes are robust, your communications are clear, and your approach to employee health overall is sound.  

Sickness absence management is a constant challenge 

Employees get sick, and sometimes there is associated sickness absence – so nothing has changed. At this time of year, colds are common and the 2020 ‘flu season was already in full swing even before concerns about corona virus emerged.

While most people will still be fit to work with a cold, this can lead to unplanned absences that business can struggle to manage. It can impact business productivity, reputation and future planning capabilities, and can easily affect workforce morale as remaining colleagues find themselves overstretched to pick up the slack.  

Yet this impact is not inevitable. Employers can improve their response to the challenges of sickness absence – they just need the right processes, supported by the right information. Employees reporting a sickness absence can be well managed and this is good for the employee and good for the business. 

Presenteeism is an extra problem for managing sickness absence  

Having a minor cold, cough and sniffles is not a sufficient reason to stay away from work. It is when employees come in when they really should not that some problems can begin. One of the main concerns around any virus is the fact that the stoic employee may all too often come in to work when they should be in bed – or, at least, trying not to spread their germs around. 

It is up to employers to ensure that they maintain a healthy workplace culture, and that includes a balanced attitude to illness. Whether due to workforce culture, a sense of obligation, or concern about job security, undue ‘presenteeism’ can jeopardise the performance of other employees, and even increase absence across teams.  

At times like this, the importance of good absence management culture and process becomes even more vital.  It must be felt by employees that it is OK to miss work if they really are ill or there is a real reason for concern. It must be made easy for employees to report if they’re unable to attend work. That means line managers must be helped and supported to respond and act in the right way, armed with the right information, at the right time.  

1.Make it easy for line managers to engage around sickness absence  

Line managers play a key role in encouraging a positive and balanced workplace health culture. When faced with a sickness challenge they need to be equipped with the right questions and information to engage properly around employee health, which includes encouraging employees to get advice from the right places.  Not Dr Google on the internet, not the news, but via informed advice from a pharmacist, a doctor – or, if there really is a concern about corona virus due to a recent travel experience or contact, from NHS 111.   

They also need to be empowered to then make the best decisions – whether that’s sending an employee home or supporting them to continue to work. However, this cannot be the end of the engagement process. Line managers also play a critical role in ensuring that post-absence procedures such as return to work interviews are carried out in a timely way, that information is properly recorded, and that HR business partners, if present, are engaged when and as becomes necessary.  

2. Make it easy for employees to report illness 

Employers must have processes in place to enable easy and rapid reporting of an absence, and to enable workers to alert their line manager if they feel unwell.  

Prompt reporting of illness enables line managers to react quickly – whether that is arranging temporary cover or sending an employee home to help reduce the spread of a virus. Not only does this better support the employee feeling ill, it also helps line managers to reallocate workloads and sustain productivity. This can be particularly important if employees are in a safety critical role, but there are risks and impacts from every absence.  

3. Maintain good sickness absence records   

No company can be effectively managing sickness absence unless they maintain good records. Important data to gather includes the reason or cause for an absence – not only does this inform a line manager about the possible length of absence, but it is vital to reveal any patterns that may be present.   

Without records it’s hard to identify and appropriately manage employees that present with a pattern of sickness absences. You need good records to spot such patterns, as well as to have the right information at hand to manage next steps. You need to recognise if a staff member is struggling with a health or a work issue. Perhaps a work adjustment may be required. Or a competency issue may underlie things, and some additional training is required. 

Records enable appropriate actions to be taken around health, work, and for appropriate connections to be made across the business.  For example: there may be a hidden health risk in the workplace, or associated with an employee’s role, that has not previously been identified – that might involve  a process of risk assessment. A health monitoring process may be lacking or have lapsed – that requires management attention. The line manager may need to engage with HR around an absence case in some instances, since absence can be associated with a range of HR case types including grievance, performance and disciplinary cases 

Data also allows employers to make better longer-term workforce decisions, both around employee health and sickness management, but also around wider people planning, work allocation and workload management.   

There are many enduring, ever-present reasons why managing sickness absence well should be a priority for employers.  The looming presence of corona virus shouldn’t be the only reason to take action.

Perhaps it can help raise employee health further up the priority list – and that may be a very good thing.  

If you need help, Empactis can provide advice and a best practice solution. If you’re a business facing similar challenges, you can find out more in our pages about COVID-19 Workforce Health Management. Call us now for an informal discussion. 

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