Published: March 29, 2022 | Updated: March 28, 2022

Absenteeism: Protecting the workplace

Sholeh Patrick

Sholeh Patrick

COVID may be a lingering pain in the patootie, but it has taught us some lessons worth keeping. Case in point: anticipating worker absenteeism.

According to reports in medical news media, in spring 2021 more than two million American employees were out sick in a single day, the most on record. When any contagion hits a workplace, key workers and even whole teams can be out at once, leaving small employers and teams especially vulnerable. Combine that with this rash of worker shortages and you’ve got a big headache potentially affecting production, deadlines, and ability to perform contracts.

Here are some tips offered by business consultants and one of the world’s largest business incubators, Founder Institute, to avoid or at least minimize such problems.

1) Firm up your absentee policy.

Research cited by Founder indicates that since 2018 fewer than half of employers had a strategy in place to manage worker absences. Not having one can leave the workers left behind feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and ill-equipped to cover an absent colleague’s responsibilities. Without that safety net, business operations and people suffer.

A clear absentee policy should detail sick and family leave, vacation, and bereavement policies, including how many potential days are paid, unpaid, and what qualifies. From a manager’s perspective, it should also include planning and communication to make sure too many aren’t on vacation at the same time if that affects team performance or production. Consultants advise actively encouraging staff to take vacation time, partly for their mental health and stress relief, and partly because scheduled vacations help plan around absences.

2) Set up a buddy, or duplication system.

This is especially important in small teams with different functions. Ensuring each key team member has a “buddy” — someone who can do the same job functions (at least the important ones) — prevents that last minute panic when the “only” one who can do something is out unexpectedly.

Another idea is to “cross-pollinate” teams so someone from another group might temporarily fill a void in a pinch. This has the added bonus of increased training and future promotion or job transfer potential if needed.

That requires preparation, and probably group discussion for feedback on who is capable or interested in filling buddy roles. Setting aside an hour or two for initial training, followed by job shadowing, is a worthwhile investment. Don’t forget to include the buddy in ongoing communications, scheduling and other critical items they’d need to be aware of or have access to during the primary worker’s unexpected absence.

If an in-house buddy isn’t feasible, ready-to-go freelancers and gig workers are possible alternatives.

3) Work, and inform, collaboratively.

Consultants say top-down hierarchies and “silos” of information in small businesses can be detrimental. Ideas need to be passed around horizontally, enriched as they go — and not just because that’s the modern way to do business. When thought processes, information, and tasks are concentrated in a single person or too few, not only does the creative process suffer but absences or personnel changes equate to immobility. You don’t want mission-critical processes or information to be dependent on one person.

If that’s how things are now and you want to change it, one idea is to have each manager or key player list such functions only they perform. Then create templates to outline how someone else can do the fundamentals when they’re absent. Some may resist, feeling possessive about their work “hats” or worrying they’ll become redundant. That takes reassurance and open communication to resolve.

4) Support absent workers.

Gone are the one-sided days when it’s all about what you can do for your employer. It’s too easy to focus on how employee absences impact the business, forgetting to account for how it impacts employees.

The dawn here is seeing them as one cohesive unit. A hand is useless without an arm, and both are useless without a system of nerves, brain, and skeletal structure. You get the idea. Staff taking time off for illness or a life event need to know they’re still valued, and those left to do their work need to feel the same. A little empathy, backed up by solid planning, goes a long way in workplace satisfaction and optimal function.

Advisers say an investment in health perks and well-being, such as gym memberships, healthy snacks, digital tools such as the Calm app encouraging meditation and relaxation, and group support efforts (even as simple as get-well cards) pay off for the employer as well as employees.

Planning for and accommodating absenteeism and finding new ways to boost morale and advance functionality for both individuals and teams can turn what feels like an obstacle into an opportunity for improvement.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email