Swine flu: preventing staff sickies is better than cure

Q What damage could bogus cases of swine flu do to my business?

A The risk of a business being significantly disrupted by bogus cases will depend on the organisation itself and whether it already had an endemic problem with employees taking frequent periods of short-term absence.

If such a problem existed, then it is likely to become worse now that employees have a convenient excuse.

Such a problematic culture is not going to be transformed overnight and it is probably already too late for this epidemic.

But affected employers will want to look at a long-term solution, such as a robust absence management process.


Q I have an absence management policy clearly set out in my guidelines to staff – is this enough?

A It is not normally enough just to have a policy on absence management, although this is an essential starting point.

It is more about having a clearly set out process where managers are trained to understand what is required of them in relation to managing persistent short-term absence in their teams.

They should, for instance, understand when the management process should be activated and at what stage warnings need to be issued.

For such a process to work, managers have to understand the benefits of applying it to their team.

Q How can I tell whether my employees are genuinely ill?

A Generally, for a short-term absence of five working days or less the employer is going to find it very difficult to prove that the employee did not have swine flu.

With the official advice for sufferers to stay away from the GP’s surgery in favour of an online or telephone diagnosis, it is pointless for employers to waste time trying to get a reliable diagnosis. All of this is somewhat academic given that, even if tests confirmed that the person did not have swine flu, this does not automatically mean that they did not have another illness which was sufficiently serious to render them unfit for work.

Employers should therefore abandon any ideas that they can verify the absence and instead look at the organisation’s approach to managing absenteeism on a long-term and ongoing basis.

Q How can I prevent staff from taking time off unnecessarily, for example if they show very mild symptoms?

A This raises a more complex problem. Employers can have an impact on this type of swine-flu related absence by educating employees through talks from HR, distributing government leaflets and providing regular updates.

HR should also be proactive in putting together some specific guidance for employees, perhaps with examples of when they should stay off work. This will help eliminate any grey areas.

The employer’s existing sickness policy might need to be temporarily expanded to deal with swine flu-related absence.

Q What if, after applying all these procedures I am still having problems with false claims and mass sick leave?

A If an employer is really having a serious problem with what they suspect are bogus claims, it may be time for them to look at other issues within their working environment, culture and practices.

The employers who will suffer least from an epidemic will be those who already have the right procedures in place and have a positive attitude to employee relations.

An employer who has worked hard to develop a culture where short term absence is not considered the norm is unlikely to be significantly affected by bogus claims.

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