Free white paper | Managing absenteeism during a pandemic

The onset of COVID-19 has brought about a step change in the way organisations need to manage workplace absenteeism and employee health, now and into the future. The role of telehealth has emerged as an essential tool to support the mental and physical wellbeing of workers, in times of crisis, and for businesses returning to more normalised operations.

Direct Health Solutions (DHS) data reveals that up to 50% of employees across the country are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety as they return to the workplace, resulting in spikes in absenteeism across some industry sectors. It is critical now more than ever, that organisations leverage this opportunity and implement the right systems and measures to prevent an outbreak in absenteeism.

When it comes to absence management specifically, centralisation of absence related data, effective monitoring and tracking of issues, and the delivery of on-demand employee health support, will give human resource departments greater clarity and control over their workforce.

As organisations transition through the pandemic and into the ‘new normal’, they will need to offer increased levels of employee support and a greater extent of reporting to effectively manage operational productivity as they adjust to more remote working models.

The impact of COVID-19 on businesses

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on absenteeism levels in Australia. According to the latest statistics from DHS, across all industry sectors, absenteeism spiked by 10% in March, taking it up to 3.5%, before reducing by 50% through April, May, and the start of June. That is 3.5% of the total Australian workforce not at work. With organisations gradually returning to more normalised work, and with the onset of winter, absence levels are on the rise again.

According to DHS, in March, the Coronavirus Hotline handled over 5,500 COVID-19 related calls. Calls from employees regarding COVID-19 reduced 70% from April through to mid May. However, since late May DHS has seen a 50% increase in COVID-19 related calls and a spike in absenteeism as a result of cold and flu symptoms, as well as stress and anxiety about the virus.

“We are in the midst of a perfect storm with COVID-19, winter, and the relaxing of restrictions coinciding with an increase in illness, stress and anxiety among workers. Currently we are handling over a 1,000 calls a week from employees worried about returning to work for fear of exposure to COVID-19. Our team of nurses are doing a tremendous job in providing quality health advice and support to alleviate employee concerns during this volatile time”, says Paul Dundon, Founder and Managing Director of DHS.

Even prior to the pandemic, absenteeism was a costly problem, averaging $3,608 per employee per annum. In fact, DHS states it costs, on average, around $350 per day when a worker is absent. This is not just a loss of efficiency and productivity, unnecessary absenteeism makes up around 7% and 8% of total payroll costs when direct wages and indirect costs are factored in. Commercially, absenteeism can end up significantly and detrimentally affecting the balance sheet.

It is anticipated that post winter and up to the end of 2020, 80% of the workforce will be remote. Absenteeism is expected to escalate with employees working from home reporting a lack of connectedness to the organisation, job uncertainty, and anxiety about their safety.

While absenteeism is clearly a significant issue, all too often it gets put in the ‘too hard basket’, as something too difficult to manage or change. If left unchecked however, it can have adverse impacts across a business, as well as signal a wider problem that needs addressing, such as workplace health and safety, culture, or stress and mental ill-health, to name a few.

Workplace wellbeing drives absenteeism

The reasons employees are absent from work is connected to a web of complex drivers. Often the physical symptoms of an upset stomach or a headache are indicators that something more underlying is going on.

DHS’ eleventh inaugural Absence Management Benchmarking Study found over half of respondents (51%) reported stress/anxiety/depression related absences increased in the last 12 months. The study also reveals that mental health issues are the second highest cause of long-term absence, with around 27% of respondents stating some form of mental ill-health in their top three causes of short-term absence.

According to the CIPD’s recently released annual survey exploring health, wellbeing and absence in UK workplaces, stress is currently the second highest cause of short-term absence at 8%, and is the third highest cause of long-term absence at 22%.

The typical winter cold or flu compounded by COVID-19

Winter also traditionally sees a spike in absenteeism, due to the usual coughs, colds and flus. This will be further compounded by COVID-19 this year, as workers affected by cold or flu-like symptoms are directed for testing and required to isolate as they wait for test results. This will also impact carer’s leave and leave caused by stress and uncertainty around the virus. It is expected that absence will take flight. However, there are some mitigating factors that can be implemented to help manage it.

The psychological factors that contribute to a healthy workforce - particularly during the current climate - need to be carefully managed. The following factors affecting employee mental health include:

  • Lack of control over the way work is done
  • Work overload (or underload)
  • Lack of management support
  • Conflicting or ambiguous roles
  • Job uncertainty
  • Poor work relationships with colleagues (including bullying)
  • Poor management and organisational change
  • Lack of a sense of purpose (the connection to a broader vision)
  • Fear concerning physical and mental safety

It is vital to manage the physical and mental health of your workforce, not only to reduce the financial strain of absenteeism, but to also keep valued employees engaged and not lose them to competitors or factors related to stress and burnout.

Forward thinking organisations driving programs that build employee-employer accountability for health and attendance outcomes are realising performance and productivity benefits. 

Evidence shows using a centralised absence management program can reduce absenteeism by 25% - 40% a year, and even more in some industry sectors. Centralised software not only saves a company money, it also helps to monitor the health status of employees and assist in offering them extra support where it might be needed.

To find out more about why mastering absenteeism is critical to strengthen your business, download our free guide. Complete with factsheets, checklists and quick tips, this guide is critical for any organisation serious about managing absenteeism now, and for the future.

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