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Managing workplace absence in the new normal

22 July 2020: With workplace absence set to remain at higher levels, Ian Caminsky, CEO of absence management company FirstCare, shares his advice on how business leaders can effectively manage unplanned leave in the post-COVID working environment.

The relaxation of social distancing rules, pubs and cinemas reopening and families being able to spend more time together has meant many facets of life are beginning to return towards normality. Yet for businesses, the stark truth remains that until a vaccine is available, the presence of COVID-19 means more employees are likely to miss work than usual.

With many businesses already burdened with additional costs due to the pandemic, leaders should examine the factors they can positively influence, such as absence. The ‘new normal’ will likely see, for example, a continuation in non-medical absences dictated by employees quarantining or caring for dependants. Our figures show that 51% of COVID-19-related absences since lockdown began are due to these reasons. If businesses take steps to gain visibility over these and other absences, they can quickly and effectively plan to mitigate the impact. 

Throughout the pandemic, my advice to business leaders and their financial teams has been to focus on three things: data, employee wellbeing and crisis planning. 

Accurate data

A report from Employee Benefits last September found that 65% of employers ‘did not know or do not record what percentage of payroll is represented by sickness absence cost per year’. Accurate data has the power to quantify the potential cost savings and inform how best to make them.

We estimate that UK businesses lost £9.6bn to COVID-19-related absences by mid-June. Working with essential businesses, I have seen the power of data in reducing such costs – pinpointing the threat of infection then taking innovative steps to mitigate it. One example is from a food manufacturer we’ve recently worked with to set up a system that sends immediate alerts to health and safety staff to deep clean areas where symptomatic employees have been working. We have also worked with an NHS Trust, providing bespoke SMS messages to staff on the hospital’s testing procedure as soon as they report a suspected case of COVID-19.

Employee wellbeing

Once organisations begin to understand the causes of unplanned leave, I have found the most effective way to reduce the cost of absence is to prioritise employee wellbeing. Besides the ongoing threat of COVID infection, the vast changes to life as we know it in the ‘new normal’ have re-emphasised the importance of mental wellbeing. Since 2018, poor mental health has been the UK’s main cause of working days lost to absence, costing employers £25bn in the last year alone. 

Initiatives should be tailored to tackle the challenges that are unique to your workplace. Even simple measures such as redeploying workers to priority areas or providing laptops to support remote working could make a big difference to maintaining operational efficiency. With the threat of COVID-19 still causing anxiety to many as we return to the ‘new normal’, by taking an intelligent approach, businesses can work out the support structures needed to help mitigate future absences.

Crisis planning

Finally, businesses must closely monitor absence trends and use this to inform crisis planning. By understanding the costliest impact of absence during the peak of the virus, businesses have been given a worst-case scenario. This can be used to understand the structures that need to be put in place should this happen again and to plan for upcoming challenges. 

In the new normal, this might mean building staff confidence in your COVID-secure workplace or offering a cycle-to-work scheme to support those not yet comfortable travelling on public transport. Having already seen a localised lockdown in Leicester, regional COVID-19 spikes are a genuine threat that need to be planned for.

As businesses continue to show great resilience in these difficult times, the focus must remain on ‘controlling the controllable’. By understanding the absence challenge in the new normal, businesses can put the right structures in place, support employees and ensure any financial effects of the virus are minimised.