Absence management in a pandemic

I am going to be bold enough to assume that no absence policy was ever written with a global pandemic in mind. Until now. At the time of writing this, we are still in the midst of the chaos caused by Covid-19. The disease has been with us for nearly two years and the situation keeps evolving. This makes it very hard to draw policy decisions on how to manage absence that is caused by Covid-19. Nevertheless, we have already learned a few good lessons and will share them in this article.

Do: Keep track of absences

As Covid-19 has overwhelmed us, many companies have let a lot of good management practices go out the window. Some HR systems were not geared up to cope with – or respond to – this data challenge. Even the CIPD reported in their Health and Wellbeing at Work survey that some organisations include Covid-related absence in their figures whilst others do not. As a result, the survey was unable to provide a valid average sickness absence rate from the data in 2021.

However, it is now truer than ever that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it!” We can imagine the multitude of challenges that organisations have had to face as a result of Covid-19, but not recording absence caused by Covid-19 seems like a peculiar choice. It may be that due to extremely high absence, or staff furlough, data collection was simply not possible at the height of the lockdowns. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a priority as society re-opens. Especially from a health and safety perspective, it is important that employers know if – and where – there are outbreaks.

Don’t just throw in the towel. Unplanned absences of all types should be recorded, regardless of how they are managed. Good absence management starts with good data. If you don’t know the scope of the problem, your policy will be ill-informed.

Do: Encourage infection control

This one may seem like common sense, but if you are putting together a Covid-addendum to your policy, it is worth formalising your attitude against presenteeism. Presenteeism, the culture of going into work even when you are not well, used to be commonplace. If coronavirus has given us anything positive, it is possibly a healthier attitude to staying at home with our germs.

Whereas before you might have felt like you were letting your boss or co-workers down by taking a sick day, we now all understand that spreading the infection is worse than our absence. We could write a whole other book about healthy home-working culture, but that’s another matter. Where possible, consider offering full pay to employees who are absent with an infectious disease. Employees may not be tempted into work for financial reasons, if full pay is offered.

Don’t: Overlook your policy

Most importantly, don’t let extraordinary circumstances be an excuse for bad absence management. A return to work interview is no less important because the employee was absent due to coronavirus. If anything, it is more important. You have a duty of care to the employee to make sure they are fit to return, both physically and mentally. You also have a duty of care to the rest of the team to make sure that person is safe to join the workforce.

During a return to work interview, there are many new things that can be uncovered. Consider symptoms of Long Covid, anxieties about the virus, vaccine concerns, and the employee’s family situation. If managers avoid these vital conversations, it will be impossible to know how each person is affected.

Sadly, coronavirus has become a blanket excuse to forgo normal practices in many workplaces. No one appears to be held accountable anymore. Perhaps many have felt powerlessness in the face of such an enormous opponent. With a faceless virus taking over normal life, day-to-day activities can feel futile. It may not change the world, but good absence management can make a real difference in the life of the absentee. These actions aren’t only beneficial to the company but, when done right, also improve the wellbeing of employees.

You should exclude Covid-19 (or whatever future pandemics we may endure) from any formal absence management processes, whilst the pandemic is ongoing. However, do not exclude them from the return to work process or your welfare actions. It will be difficult to recover from neglecting to set a precedent that these tasks can simply be ignored. Bad habits die hard. It is best not to let them develop in the first place.

Engage and the pandemic

The majority of respondents in Honeydew’s 2021 Customer Satisfaction Survey said Engage helped them manage Covid-19. Clients were certainly aware, from the first day of lockdowns, exactly how many employees were impacted by the pandemic. They were then able to pass on key messages to their staff at a time of great chaos.

Honeydew is glad to have been able to help our users manage absence during the coronavirus pandemic. We were quick to create a new coronavirus absence category. We added new absence clauses to our dictionary, in response to the ever-changing situation.

Messages to employees were updated regularly so absentees could be kept updated about their company’s take on the necessary health & safety measures. Call handlers worked hard on our Day-1 Absence Reporting Service, to ensure the correct absence information was logged in Engage.

Download your free copy of the full “Absence Policy” eBook here: https://lp.constantcontactpages.com/su/1eLOx64/absencepolicy