After years of HR teams and business managers gathering and analysing statistics in relation to short-term absence, most organisations appear to have systems in place to deal with this and are not reporting as many issues as before. This is not to say that there are not still pockets of unacceptable short-term absence within some organisations which need to be addressed, but rather that other issues have come to the forefront in recent times. There are for instance the well documented issues organisations face due to the management of long-term absence but perhaps more surprisingly, there are also issues caused by a rise in people actually choosing to turn up to work when sick (presenteeism).
Turning to the latter issue, if an employee is under the weather and comes to work, is this not commendable? After all, they are surely demonstrating a high work ethic, a commitment to the organisation and an appreciation of the difficulties which any necessary cover arrangements would bring? In times of economic pressure, reorganisation, pay freezes, redundancy and cost-cutting¸ does this not demonstrate an understanding of the working environment and signify an increase in employee responsibility?
Yes and no. The responsibility comes at a price. What about the impact upon other work colleagues who may then pick up the illness and spread it around the whole office? No one (aside from an occasional manager) is truly happy to see an ill co-worker at their desk or to breathe the same air as them. Also, what image does it really portray to your customers or clients if your employees are visibly or audibly ill and are still at their work, especially if they have the impression that the employee in question is not really up to the job, or worse, is too scared to take the time off?
So, on a practical level, what is the best stance for you as an employer to take? Firstly, try to strike a balance between encouraging a good work ethic and allowing people sufficient recuperation time when they are genuinely sick. This is after all what absence and sick pay policies were originally aimed at. Secondly, avoid reacting badly when employees call in or pressurising them to return when they are not ready, even subtly because as a manager ‘you have never had a day off’ or because ‘there’s a lot going on at the moment’. Thirdly, is the situation black and white or is there anything grey that can be considered? For example, if the employee is genuinely well enough to work but doesn’t feel they can be in the office due to their symptoms or they are contagious, could they work remotely? Lastly, conduct return to work interviews with employees and explore if they are genuinely well enough to be back because a present employee is just that. Present does not always mean productive.