COVID 19 – 2022 – it is still going on!

This week we have heard on the news how many NHS bodies have declared a state of emergency based not only on the number of hospital admissions but also due to the number of staff absent due to COVID 19.

We have also seen this reported in the first week back to school with some schools stretched due to teachers isolating.

Overall, we have been expected to see around 25% of the workforce absent due to COVID 19 and this on top of the normal absences.

What options do employers have in trying to cope with this challenging time?

The purpose of this article isn’t to discuss the positive or negative aspects of any government decision in regard to lockdowns or the dealing with the COVID 19 crisis. The purpose of this article is purely to investigate how employers of various sizes can navigate through this period of high absence.

The facts as they stand at the time of writing this article is that as of 11th January 2022 a positive LTF will be enough to trigger a requirement for isolation, there will not be a need to confirm with a PCR. There is also an expectation of another “pingdemic” as the increased infection rate causes a knock-on effect on the require isolating due to contact.

Processes that you should have in place

  • Notification of absence
  • Absence monitoring
  • Return to work interviews
  • COVID 19 policies

Notification

Make sure everyone is aware of the notification process and that this is adhered to by all staff and managers. The initial call only needs to be a confirmation of absence and the reason for that absence. Managers are allowed and should ask what the matter with the individual is so that they can get an idea of the potential length of the absence. Of course, if it is as a result of a positive test then it will be at least 7 days.

Absence Monitoring

Records of absence are essential in staff management but due to the sensitive nature of the information, they are subject to GDPR (data protection).

These will show you:

  • pure numerical data such as how many days an individual has had in a fixed period
  • any patterns indicating insincere absence
  • any serious potential underlying medical problems that may require support or further consideration

Return to Work Interviews

First and foremost, these meetings are a powerful way to build the rapport with the staff member – so we should always make time for them. More often than not they will be short “how are you?” type meetings but on the occasion that they need more detail because there is an underlying problem or the attendance level is getting to a level of concern then they will be easier to undertake as they are part of the normal process.

The difficulty for employers during this continuing COVID crisis, amongst many other difficulties is coping with the frequent high level of absence.

Some jobs are based from the work site and this can not be avoided, such as factory work but many other roles can be undertaken remotely even if for just a short period of time. Some work from home may be better than no work at all and so a temporary change in duties or a specific project during that period could be a useful consideration.

The alternative of course, is of sick due to sickness or isolation and you are getting no work and they are possibly just getting SSP.

If this is not a practical option then you have to prepare for the additional absence and so this may require you to look at re-negotiating contracts of service with your customers and clients in order to meet those expectations.

Managers will need to look out for increased pressure on everyone as they cope with additional work to cover absent colleagues and absent colleagues may suffer from the guilt and so the communication with your team will be more important than ever.

Finally

I have spoken to a few employers who are considering whether or not to include COVID 19 absence as part of the trigger points when measuring attendance. Firstly, there is currently no legal status differentiating COVID 19 absence from any other absence and so technically dismissal related to absence is an option. However, we need to consider exactly what the issue at hand is. If it is the absence, will that improve with someone else?

The individual you have in place is a settled member of staff and you will have to recruit, replace and train a new staff member, possibly because someone was “unlucky” with the COVID 19 app, who is to say that the new member of staff wont be just as unlucky?

The other issue that has been discussed is the people that perhaps “stretch” the amount of leave they are taking. I would expect that for isolation or COVID 19 there will be confirmation information available such as a test result or an app notification. So, failure to provide either of these may be questioned by you. That said, before we gently nudge people to attend work, we don’t want people coming in that do have COVID or are at risk, this will obviously expose their colleagues and increase the likelihood of absence problems.

Conclusion

As has been the constant case during this crisis, there just is not a satisfactory answer – just a choice of a few “best of a bad bunch” options, especially for those that can’t easily work from home.

Most importantly, review your COVID 19 procedure, make sure it is still up to date with the ever-changing regulations. I find the gov.com website still a brilliant resource of information as well as the NHS pages in regards to isolations times.

For those where working from home is not an option (this has to be because the work is based from the office / factory and not because you have never done it before) then make sure you do everything you can to protect the social distancing in the working day, consider where the major risk areas are:

Travel to work issues such as car sharing

Break times / canteens

Smoking sheds

Setting where distancing is not practical

There is good advice on the HSE website about COVID 19 risk assessments.

For those where there is an option for admin work then it is likely that home working is a real option. Employers often struggle with the trust issue but I would suggest that as long as the job is getting done and getting done to the standard that you require then trust just does not come into it. Technology may do:

Laptops

Printers

Scanners

VPN / Internet / Server access

Information security

This in addition to the importance of socio-psycho networking.

Moving forward

I don’t want to be a pessimist, but the latest news is indicating that we will need to live with this virus that, like flu it will change and so there will be other variants to follow with some scientists suggesting that 3 spikes a year could be the normal. Perhaps, if it does behave like a traditional virus and as it becomes more contagious, it becomes weaker it will be nothing more than a cold. However, we clearly are not there yet. So, all we can do is react to the new instructions but perhaps consider new ways of working:

Flexible / homeworking

Staggered shifts / cohorts

When setting up new work establishments /procedures, allow for distancing as and where possible

The regular use of PPE

And, as always, communication with our people is essential for the success of business so, make sure you are not too busy to speak and listen to your people.

Need advice or information?

I can help with COVID 19 policies

Absence policies

Training managers on holding these types of meetings

Setting up employee forums

Homeworking policies including performance measurement

Contact me on the email or number below for a free initial consultation.

Without any intended sarcasm or irony, I sincerely wish you a happy, healthy and successful New Year.

Natalie Cutler

HR Consultant and Management Trainer

Straight Talking HR

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