Friday, 16 April 2021 15:43

Sickness Absence Post Covid

One of the positive side-effects of the Covid experience has been that there has been less general illness in the UK workforce. Or, in Office of National Statistics speak, a reduction in working days lost to sickness absence. In fact, 2020 shows the lowest sickness absence rate, just 1.8%, since the data time series began in 1995.

Of course social distancing, shielding, working from home and furlough have all contributed to this reduction and we’re all washing our hands more often, sanitising and wearing masks. Coming out of lockdown however there will be more social interaction and therefore opportunity to spread illness. Also, just being back at work, out and about more and returning to sports is likely to lead to more personal physical injury, incapacitating workers.

With the Working from Home option looking as though it’s going to become an acceptable norm for many organisations, albeit to varying degrees, are businesses geared up and prepared to manage sickness absence in the post Covid world?

Surprisingly, there is no legal requirement for an employee to notify his or her employer that they will not be attending work due to sickness or injury. Instead, this would be a contractual obligation that is specified in an absence policy and would usually appear in the organisation’s staff handbook. Whilst it’s pretty standard practice for an employee to call in to their line manager if they’re sick, what is the expectation of staff who are working from home?

We’ve discussed previously how, with working from home becoming more prevalent, we might see a shift towards measuring productivity rather than hours in the office as a way to gauge employee contribution. There will be little incentive then for an individual to declare themselves absent if they feel they can still get their work done. Especially as declaring themselves as off sick will mean they are likely to suffer financially.

Historically, it’s accepted that if you’re not fit for work then you don’t come in. But if a member of staff, whilst unwell, can still drag themselves in front of their computer screen, they may consider themselves to be at fit enough for work. They may not be very productive, but if they’re in “attendance” then they’re probably going to expect to be paid.

On the other hand, if we are indeed measuring productivity, does the employee open themselves up for a performance discussion if they have not declared themselves sick, but their output suffers.

The complexity of this issue deepens further still when we involve the concept of presenteeism. You have doubtless heard reports that employees work harder and longer when at home because they feel they have something to prove. This in itself is self-defeating as over-work can be a contributor to stress and burnout which falls under the classification of Mental Health Conditions, one of the four main reasons for sickness absence in the UK for 2020; the top four being:

  • minor illnesses (26.1%) - coughs, colds and flu; sickness, nausea and diarrhoea
  • other conditions (17.1%) – the advised category for reporting coronavirus related illness
  • musculoskeletal problems (15.4%) – back pain and limb problems
  • mental health conditions (11.6%)

The danger is then that presenteeism contributes to sickness and health issues even when there is no requirement to be physically present.

It’s clear that absence policy and procedure will have to be updated to be enforceable and effective in the post-Covid working environment. As organisations settle into a routine over the coming months, we’re likely to see many such polices re-written to enable business to maintain robust and sensible management practices.

If you’re ready for a review of your policies and procedures, we can offer advice and support to ensure you’re covering all of the angles. Call us on 01452 331331 or e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Read 1003 times Last modified on Friday, 16 April 2021 15:47


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