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It’s the time of year when everyone seems to be coming down with something. Whether it’s the common cold or full-blown influenza, the spread of illness during the winter months can seem inevitable, especially when people are gathered together in the workplace.
Getting sick in winter or any other time of year is obviously no fun for the person who’s ill, but it can also be an added pressure for employers.
The latest ONS statistics show that in 2018, around 141 million working days were lost to sickness absence, with minor illnesses like coughs, colds and the flu making up the highest percentage of the time off.
That’s a lot of working time to lose, especially if you’re running a small business without many members of staff to cover those who are absent.
Telling staff to take time off sick might sound obvious, but ‘presenteeism’ – where employees come into work even when they’re unwell – has become much more common over the past decade.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reports that 83% of organisations observed presenteeism in the past 12 months, compared to only 26% in 2010.
Showing up even when you’re not feeling your best might seem like the right thing to do, but in reality, it can end up making you feel worse for longer. When employees do this, it can actually cause more damage to business productivity than if they had taken the time to recover at home.
It also increases the risk of sickness spreading throughout the organisation, meaning what started as a one-off illness could end up turning into an office epidemic.
“From a company perspective, what’s most important is the health and wellbeing of our staff,” said Michelle Wood, an HR professional working in Bristol.
“If someone has a cold, we don’t want that spreading around [the office], so we would encourage them to stay at home and recover.”
To prevent presenteeism, it’s important to make sure your sickness absence policy is clear, and employees know what to do and who they should contact if they are ill.
Another side of this is workplace culture. Make sure leaders in your business encourage staff to go home when they’re ill, and that they set an example themselves by taking time off.
Another option is to consider adopting a flexible working policy, so employees can choose to work from home while they recover – but it’s important to make sure that doesn’t turn into a form of presenteeism in itself, and that people are only working from home if they’re well enough to do so.
Realistically, a mild cold isn’t always going to stop people from coming into work, so to stop illness spreading in the workplace, it might be helpful to remind employees about the basics of cold and flu prevention.
Wood sends out an all-staff internal email around the start of winter each year, with tips from the NHS on preventing the spread of colds and flu.
“We encourage good hygiene, like washing hands and using hand sanitisers, as well as following a healthy diet and getting a flu vaccination.
“Sometimes it’s just a case of reminding people. I always think if the email means one person remembers to go and get their flu jab, I’ve done a good job.”
Keeping a record of how often absences occur can help you to measure the cost to your business or its productivity, and make allowances to cover it.
This can also be a helpful reference point if you’re concerned about the risk of employees abusing the sick leave system.
Point-scoring mechanisms such as the Bradford Factor, which identifies repeated short periods of absence, could help you to spot any issues and talk to members of staff who are frequently off sick.
If you feel that the levels of absence are unacceptable, this could help inform decisions on disciplinary action from an objective, numbers-based point of view.
In general, though, this kind of system should be used more as a guide than a strict rule, and it shouldn’t always be about penalising people.“In my experience when we’ve seen absence flagged by the Bradford Factor, it’s usually been genuine. It’s more about keeping an eye on staff and finding out how we can help them if there are any issues,” added Wood.
“For instance, if someone suffers from regular migraines and the conditions in the office exacerbate the issue, it might be more helpful for them to work from home sometimes. It’s better than losing that member of staff altogether.”
Although absences can be more noticeable over winter, the physical and mental health of your employees should be a year-round concern.
Setting out clear, well-communicated HR policies that encompass both issues will help you to maintain a healthy and productive workforce.
You can find more information about employees’ rights to sick leave on GOV.UK, or guidance on managing sickness absence on Acas.