Navigating the new normal: how to manage employee absences in a post-pandemic world

manage employee absence

It was reported earlier this year that GPs may be told to issue fewer sick notes in a bid to keep more people in work and boost the economy. Since the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, sickness absence in the workplace has increased considerably. This increase in sick days has continued even as the pandemic has subsided and COVID-19 has become something we live with, like flu and other illnesses, but its legacy is a change in attitude towards work and a more complicated process for businesses to manage employee absence. 

Since the pandemic, there is no denying that there has been a spike in the number of people out of employment and this means there are less people available to interview for jobs, or return to the roles they had previously. By signing people off who could technically work, doctors may therefore be contributing to this shrinking talent pool. How then, can businesses better navigate this difficult issue? 

From 25th March 2022, the government withdrew its special rules relating to statutory sick pay and coronavirus, but with people still being affected by the virus, companies have had to choose the best path to follow in terms of protecting their business and workforce. Most will follow the Statutory Sick Pay regulations when faced with employees who have the virus, however there is a fine balance to be struck between keeping people in work who are well enough to be there and keeping those at home who may potentially spread the virus to others and cause further absence. Then of course, we have to consider that it isn’t only COVID-19 that causes absence from work. There are a whole host of medical reasons for sickness absence and each needs to be treated with care and consideration to make the best of the situation for all involved. 

Statistics show us that once people have been signed off work for 6 months or more, 80% of them will never return to the workplace. The proposed new rules could put employers back in the driving seat, enabling them to make their own assessments about whether an employee is fit and healthy enough to do their job effectively and safely. This, in itself, could cause problems with presenteeism – where people come to work when they are not really well enough, thus putting themselves and others at risk – but with early intervention and making use of occupational health professionals to carry out sickness absence reviews and return to work medicals – it could be a satisfactory step towards reducing the number of people who are out of work. 

Tips for managing employee absence 

Managing employee absence can be made much easier by following these practical tips. 

Have an absence policy and stick to it 

It’s amazing how many organisations don’t have an absence policy, making it easy for employees to take advantage and regularly not turn up for work as there are no real consequences. Many workplaces have seen employee absence reduce simply by enforcing an absence policy. But remember, it isn’t just enough to have a policy, you also need to make sure your employees have read and understood it. 

Encourage communication 

Many problems occur in the workplace because people don’t speak about the things that are affecting them, or don’t know who to speak to when a situation arises. By encouraging open and clear communication at all levels of your organisation you can show that you care and are willing to provide valuable support. Keeping in touch with employees who may be off on sick leave will help you to monitor their progress and allow them to feel in touch with the team and the company, all of which will help you to more effectively manage their return to work. 

Train your leaders 

Often, high absence rates in the workplace can be as the result of poor communication, mismanagement, staff overload or a negative culture. A lot of these issues can be easily rectified, but to do so, you need to provide direction and positivity from the top. By training your managers in areas such as effective communication, mental health issues and absence legislation you can enable your leaders to more effectively manage your employees and thus strengthen the organisation as a whole. 

Provide flexible working options 

Thanks to COVID-19 the vast majority of workplaces learned how to enable staff to work remotely. Many organisations have continued to work on an at-home or hybrid basis, which has made it easier to allow for more flexible working options. When faced with long term absences, organisations should seek to bring back or expand on these flexible working options to allow employees to carry out some of their duties from home or gradually return to work in a way that suits them and reduces the risk of them going back on sick leave again. 

The role of return to work medicals 

If an employee has been absent from work for a long time due to illness or an accident, a review will be required to ensure that they are fit and healthy to return to the workplace.  

A return to work medical is carried out by an occupational health professional to assess the health and fitness of the individual in question. The medical will not only provide helpful guidance to the employer on how to reintroduce the employee effectively and safely, but can also help in the planning process if a phased return to work is advised. This means that the employee can return to work but may only be able to carry out some of their duties or work for a certain number of hours per day. By facilitating this gradual return to work, the business benefits from a financial and productivity perspective and the individual is not overloaded at a time when their health and fitness may not yet be back to 100%. 

How we can help 

At Heathrow Medical we can help you to manage employee absence in two ways; firstly by providing sickness absences reviews to assess employees’ during their absence and liaise with GPs to determine a suitable return to work date and secondly, by providing return to work medicals to confirm an individual’s ability to come back to work and clarify if any restrictions or recuperative duties will be required. 

To find out more or to book an appointment with our occupational health team, please contact us on (0)20 8528 2633. 

Occupational Health Services
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