Managing absences from work can be challenging at the best of times. With the added complication of Covid-19, it becomes even trickier, and given the current government guidelines in relation to self-isolation, it is inevitable that there will be absences from work as we learn to live alongside Covid-19.
Various reports show that up to 11 million days are lost through absenteeism every year at a cost of €1.5bn to the Irish Economy. With the Covid-19 pandemic, as we head towards the winter months, these numbers are expected to rise significantly.
Employers have had to make a lot adjustments in a short period of time, in line with the government return to work safety protocol, to ensure their workplaces are safe. Most small businesses really want to do the right thing by their employees, and they are also trying to keep their business operating, make a living and keep people in employment.
However, absenteeism is on the rise. Over the past few weeks, we have seen an increase in employee absences where the employee themselves are not ill. Among the various scenarios are parents who have to say at home to take care of children sent home from school, employees living with vulnerable family members who do not want to put their family members at risk and there are employees who are anxious and worried about their own health and who may themselves have underlying medical conditions.
With all these moving pieces, employers are finding it increasingly difficult to manage absences even when they want to do the right thing. The key to navigating these circumstances successfully is Effective Communication. Listen to what employees have to say, to hear their concerns, look at what options are available and come up with a workable solution, where possible.
If employees are nervous about returning to the workplace, speak to them and let them know the details of all the safety measures you have put in place to keep them safe and how these measures will be monitored and managed. Invite employees to visit the workplace so they can see first-hand what measures are in place. Encourage them to ask questions and be open to hearing new ideas or suggestions for additional measures that would make them feel safer about returning and implement these, where possible.
Engaging with your employees, giving them a voice, and implementing their ideas and suggestions builds trust and can result in employees feeling more confident about returning to work and in the company’s approach to keeping them safe. It also underpins employee engagement and loyalty. There are multiple studies demonstrating the strong links between wellbeing and employee retention so creating a healthy workplace is no longer just a worthy concept, it is essential for business success.
Both Employers and Employees are juggling multiple challenges and are worried about business security, job security, financial commitments, childcare, care for aging parents, health, and wellbeing of themselves and their loved one, loss of social lives etc. Prior to Covid-19 appearing in our lives ‘the number one reason for absence from work was reduced mental wellbeing’ and a lot of people need help with their stress and anxiety levels. Now that we are dealing with so much uncertainty, its likely this will remain at the top reason for absence from work so its even more important to remain engaged with your employees and making it a priority to maintain regular and effective two-way communications to mitigate this risk. The more informed and involved your employees are, the more productive and engaged they will be when they are at work so think of communications as an investment in your business as well as your people.
Many small businesses are working hard to survive this pandemic and to maintain competitiveness, so keeping absence costs and the impacts of absences to a minimum is a top priority.
Here are my Top 7 Tips for Managing Absences from Work:
- Absence Management Policy
- Covid-19 Guidelines to support Absence Management Policy
- Pay or No Pay
- Record Keeping
- Notification and Evidence of Incapacity
- Returning to Work
- Attendance Reviews
Following these simple steps can have a significant impact on reducing absenteeism in the workplace.
1: Have an Absence Management Policy
Having a well-considered and detailed Absence Management Policy is the first step to laying a solid foundation for managing employee absences and for helping employees know where they stand. Your policy can include the following:
- What is expected in terms of attendance at work, what absences are acceptable.
- Differentiate between short-term and long-term absence, certified and non-certified and have a clear, documented processes for each.
- Clearly state employee responsibilities and management responsibilities
- The notification procedure for the first couple of days and thereafter
- The requirements regarding medical certificates; details and frequency
- The procedure for returning to work following absences
- What will trigger the disciplinary process
- Your ability to send an employee for an independent medical examination when required
Creating a written policy is great but it’s not enough.
- A policy is only useful when it is communicated to all employees and like everything else you should always ensure management are trained on its implementation that it is communicated to all employees.
- It’s always best to have all employees sign to acknowledge that they have read and understood the policy and agree to comply with its terms and conditions.
Creating and communicating your policy is the first step to put you in a strong position to monitor, measure and manage any employee absences.
2: Covid-19 Guidelines to support Absence Management Policy
To support your Absence Management Policy, you can also create Covid-19 guidelines, inform employees that these guidelines are fluid and changing and they will be updated and distributed as new changes are made.
Below is a sample of what can be included in these guidelines:
- What to do if you are displaying symptoms of Coivd-19.
- What to do when you receive Covid-19 test results
- Sick leave due to Covid-19 illness
- Self-Isolating Guidelines
- Steps to take if you feel unwell at home
- Contacting the company representative if feeling unwell or displaying symptoms of Covid-19 while at work
- What will happen if you feel unwell at work or display symptoms of Covid-19
- Maintaining contact with the company
- Contact tracing in the company
- Risk Assessments
- Guidelines if someone in your household is demonstrating symptoms of Covid-19 or told to self-isolate
Detailing these helps the company to plan for all eventualities and helps employees understand how the company will handle the various scenarios. Any information you provide helps mitigate against all the current uncertainties.
3: Pay / No Pay
The normal sick pay scheme or no sick pay scheme still applies during Covid-19. However, it’s advisable to re-communicate the policy to all employees and to invite employees to discuss their own situation with you if they need to. You can review each case on its own merits and make whatever arrangements work for you and the employee but you do need to be aware of any precedent you may set, and what every you agree must be fair to all employees.
It’s also advisable to inform employees that the absence policy covers all absences from work, not just situations where the employee is unable to attend work due to being sick themselves and to re-iterate the importance of keeping the line of communication open.
While there is no legal obligation on any employer to pay sick pay, and regardless of whether you do or not, you need to decide if payment will be made for Covid-19 related absences, even if the employee themselves is not sick. Whatever you decide, you need to implement it in a fair and consistent manner for all employees.
With absences related to Covid-19 rather than an employee being ill themselves, if you do not operate a sick pay scheme, you can advise employees to apply for state benefit. There may be benefits available to people who must stay at home due to child-care, school closures etc. However, there is currently no state benefit for someone who doesn’t return to work due to being too stressed or anxious about Covid-19 or who don’t return because they are living with a vulnerable person.
You must decide what you will pay, if anything, if an employee is ill with Covid-19 and if they are absent from work for a Covid-19 related reason. If you decide not to pay anything, be aware, you run the risk of employees coming to work sick. We encourage you to consider making some payment to top up illness benefit to deter employees from coming into work and potentially spreading infection to others in the workplace which has greater potential of having a negative impact on the business versus one person being ill…
If you do not pay sick, then employees apply for state illness benefit. The six-day waiting period before receiving illness benefit has been removed temporarily and the Covid-19 illness benefit will remain in place until end of March 2021.
Force Majeure can be used for the first day and you can, at your discretion, allow employees to use their 3 days in 12-month entitlement or 5 days in 3 years entitlement. The advice from the government is: in the exceptional circumstances of Covid-19 it is expected that employers will, if at all possible, facilitate people by allowing them to take the full 5 days in 3 years entitlement in one block, if required.
The other option if employees do not have sufficient PRSI stamps to collect illness benefit, is to use annual leave if they have some still available to them. However, this can be tricky and must be agreed in writing. If you want to use this option, I suggest you get advice first.
Some employers are now paying staff for the 1st 3 days of absence for Covid-19 related absences, even though they don’t normally operate a sick pay scheme, some are paying 50% of pay for the first week and some are providing some top up to illness benefit. Some business simply can’t afford to make any payment, so you have to decide what makes sense for you and your business and employees.
4: Accurate Record Keeping
All employers are expected to keep accurate employee absence records. It can be a real pain however it is really important because it allows you to measure, monitor and manage absence problems and their associated costs.
Keep individual records and accurately record and track all absences i.e. sickness, injury, certified and non-certified, approved, not approved.
You’ll also want to record the start date, end date, duration, and nature of the absence or illness.
If you don’t have a HR system this can be done with a simple excel template.
One of the cornerstones of absence management is accurate record keeping.
Look at individual records for any patterns or trends.
Individual records can be combined for summary reports and to identify trends and take any action you need to take.
Having this information allows you to identify improvement goals and communicate those to the team.
5: Notification Procedure and Evidence of Incapacity
It’s important to have a notification procedure so everyone understands what to do when they have to notify you about an absence from work.
It’s even more important to consistently implement the notification procedure to support you and your business.
Its good practice to require employees to telephone within one hour of their start time (and sooner if possible) and to speak directly with their line manager or another manager. Text messages, emails, voice messages and having someone else call for an employee are not advised.
When an employee calls, it should be specified in your policy that they must indicate:
- The nature of the absence
- The likely duration of the absence
This daily notification procedure should continue until the employee either returns to work or submits a medical certificate. This will help you understand what measures you may have to put in place to cover the absence.
Evidence of Incapacity
When an employee is absent for 3 consecutive days due to illness or injury, they should submit a certificate from a qualified medical practitioner on the third day, specifying the nature of the illness and the expected date of return to work.
Further medical certificates should be furnished on a weekly basis for the duration of the illness. A Fit for Work certificate should be required upon return from an absence that extends beyond one week.
When you consistently implement your Notification Procedure and Evidence of Capacity requirements and capture the data in your record keeping process, you equip yourself with the data to create a very clear picture of the level of absence in the business, the associated costs and what, if anything, needs to change.
6: Returning to Work
When an employee returns from any period of absence (including absence covered by a medical certificate) they should complete and sign off on a return to work form.
Once completed they should sign it and review it to their manager; for 1- or 2- day absences, this ensures the employee can account for the nature of the absence and indicate if they went to the doctor.
This is a good process for trending reasons for absences and frequencies.
It can help uncover any hidden reasons for absence.
It can also often act as a deterrent to employees calling in sick for 1 day.
Regardless of duration, always speak to an employee when they return to work following an absence.
This lets the employee know they were missed and that when they are absent, they can expect a follow up conversation with you.
In the case of a Covid-19 related absence, the employee should complete and sign a declaration form and the return to work should be approved by management.
Consistency is the key to yielding results from the Return to Work process so you will want to be vigilant about conducting return to work interviews.
7: Reviewing Absences from Work with Employees
Finally, is the really important step of regularly reviewing absences with employees.
You can do this as part of your performance management conversations or 1 to 1 chat, and if there is a potential problem emerging make sure you cover the following points:
- Review and agree dates of absence to ensure your records are accurate
- Ask for an explanation and listen to the response provided
- Find out if there are any aspects of the job or working environment that may be contributing to the absences
- Offer the Employee the assistance of your Employee Assistance Program if you have one or any other assistance you can offer
- If you think there is cause for concern or that there are issues, you will need to clearly outline the required improvement and timeframe, any additional reasonable supports
- Advise the employee that at the end of the period a review meeting will be held to assess if the employee has achieved the required improvement; and
- Advise the employee of the consequences of not meeting the required improvements
- After the meeting write to the employee within five working days, confirming the outcome of the meeting and the agreed attendance standards.
Bringing this kind of information into an employee’s awareness lets them know you are recording, trending, monitoring, and addressing any patterns of absence.
Regular reviews also give the employee clear feedback and if there is a problem, a fair opportunity to make the necessary improvements.
How to Get Ahead of the Curve
There are several things a company can do to get ahead of the expected rise in absenteeism.
Here a few suggestions:
- Start cross training staff on how to perform each other’s duties. If there is only one person in the company who can do any task, that is a risk to action. The more people that can perform various tasks, the lower the risk to business continuity if that person is absent from work.
- If you don’t already have Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) for each process in your business, then this is a good time to get started. Ask each employee to document the process steps to perform each of their duties and to create an SOP for each process. That way, if someone is absent, another employee can pick up and follow the SOP.
- Set up ‘Pods’ of employees who can work together every day, where at all possible. That way, if someone tests positive, you may only have to close the POD – (based on a risk assessment).
- Stagger working hours and break times to minimise the number of employees in the workplace or in the canteen at any one time.
- Set up a one-way system throughout the building to minimise contact with other people.
- Minimise in person meetings and use online facilities where possible.
- If you don’t have an Employee Assistance Program, point employees to the free mental health supports available in your locality and consider providing some sort of wellbeing support for your team.
- Be as supportive and as flexible as you can with employees e.g. if self-isolating or asymptomatic, we recommend you let the employee work from home if the work allows and if they have the proper set up to do so…
These are my Top Tips to manage employee absences over the winter months. I hope you can now see how integrating and following these steps can have a significant impact on managing absenteeism in the workplace.