The end of the year marks the start of the busy season for many UK businesses and challenges for the HR team.
Unfortunately, when you combine together extra demand, party season and the arrival of colds and flu, employers can easily find themselves in the perfect storm of productivity – too many deadlines and too few staff.
It’s always a challenge for business owners, do you let workers come in with all manner of bugs? Getting the balance right between sickness absence management and presenteeism, where one sick worker can infect hundreds more is like walking a tightrope.
The impact is undeniable
Minor illnesses such as cold, coughs and the flu account for as much as 30% of sick days taken in the UK, making them the most common reason people missed work. All of those missed days add up to a not insignificant loss in revenue. When looking specifically at the flu season, a Cooperative Pharmacy study found that influenza cost the UK economy £1.35bn annually in lost working days.
Early prevention goes a long way
“There is no point in sticking your head in the sand when it comes to flu season,” says Lynn Morrison, Head of Business Engagement at Opus Energy. “As soon as the leaves start to fall, you should start talking to your team about how to keep from getting sick, and what you expect them to do if it happens. The first step in your plan should be preventing the flu- the annual flu vaccine is designed to protect against the strains of influenza that are expected to be most common that year, and you should get a new vaccine each autumn. Offering reduced price, incentivised or free flu vaccinations is a great way to do this.”
Opus Energy offer tips, guidance and information for SMEs and start ups via their website brighterbusiness.co.uk. Lynn recommends that employers take advantage of ‘flu vaccinations in order to minimise the impact ‘flu can have on your business:
“Lloyd’s Pharmacy offer a corporate service where they can set up a vaccination clinic in your premises, whilst Boots offers businesses a Corporate Flu Vaccination Service which allows you to offer flu vaccinations at no cost to your employees.”
“Subsidising vaccinations does require an upfront investment, but it can be much less than the costs of having one or more team members out sick for an extended time” continues Lynn. “Another good option is to purchase vouchers for free vaccinations at local pharmacies, allowing them to go whenever it is convenient. Vouchers can be a great option for small businesses or businesses with a wide variety of working hours.”
Preventing the spread
Lyn feels that if someone has flu, employers need to send them home – flu is different to a cold. Unlike common colds, flu symptoms come on quickly and can last up to a week. Most cases can be treated by simple rest, but if employees try to work through, the duration and potential complications can turn what would have been a few days off into something much longer. You also risk spreading the illness throughout the team. Lyn says:
“No matter how hard you try, unfortunately there isn’t a way to 100% prevent someone from catching a winter cold or the flu. What you can prevent is the illness from spreading throughout your team. Hygiene basics like hand washing reminders, sanitiser and tissues will help during those early hours when symptoms start to arise. No one wants to get sick, so having easy access to tools to help you stay well is bound to be a hit.”
Some employers disagree
Not all employers agree. An AXA PPP healthcare study found that more than 50% of senior managers do not think that the flu is serious enough to justify time off work. This comes in direct contradiction to NHS guidelines, which recommend rest and recovery time at home.
Glen Parkinson, SME Director for AXA PPP healthcare, comments:
“With managers showing so little understanding of or support for employees suffering from illness, it’s not difficult to see why employees worry about phoning in sick. Employers need to challenge this blinkered attitude, both for their own benefit as well as that of their employees. In many cases it is more productive for an employee to take a day off to recover from a spell of illness rather than to come into work, with diminished productivity and, for likes of colds and flu, the potential to spread their illness to workmates.”
Parkinson goes on to suggest employers show sympathy and consider flexible working alternatives as better solutions.
“The obvious goal for small businesses is to have all employees operating at 100%. Turning a blind eye to the winter flu, either by ignoring easy prevention options or discouraging proper recovery time, is not the way to solve the problem. Smart employers will make small, upfront investments in preventing the spread of illness through their teams. Supporting employee’s efforts to take appropriate recovery time can keep a single illness from snowballing into an extended and significant impact on your business’ productivity.”
Data is your friend!
Absence management expert Adrian Lewis of Activ Absence also agrees that allowing workers to work from home when ill is a good way of getting the balance right, but argues that too many businesses fail to make data based decisions when trying to minimise the impact of sickness absence.
“It sometimes feels that employers get their wellness budgets and think if they wave a magic wand, throw out a yoga class and bowls of apples, everything will be ok. That approach is lazy – employers need to use proper absence management tools to understand WHY people are off before they try to tackle it.
“It’s easy to just phone in and say ‘I’ve got flu’ but managers need to follow every sickness absence with proper return to work interviews. If it’s just one day off, it’s not likely to be ‘flu! Short term absences could be down to a cold, monday-itis, a hangover after a Christmas party, workplace stress or personal problems – it’s harder to tell lies in a face to face interview, and its easier to establish if an employee is masking stress and needs further workplace support. Likewise if you see musculoskeletal problems in a particular department, maybe the whole team need re-training in manual handling, or the work processes need to change. Wellness does NOT mean one approach suits all, using data from your absence management system and proper return to work interviews should help you form your absence action plan – which could include ‘flu vaccinations.
“Data enables managers to get effective control over absenteeism and tackle the preventable causes of absence. Then you can let infectious workers work from home where possible and prevent the infection afflicting the whole workforce – that’s not only our advice, but the approach we take in our own business.”