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6 absence challenges to prepare for this summer

Written by Alexandra Farmer on 30 June 2022

Summer is upon us, and it’s not uncommon for businesses to find that they are a little thin on the ground at this time of year as far as staff are concerned.

As the weather hots up, higher levels of planned absences are to be expected, as employees look forward to weekend getaways and trips abroad. With enough notice, these holiday requests might not pose too much of a problem, but if unplanned absences happen on top, it could tip the balance from manageable absence levels to chaos and disruption.

At a time when staffing shortages are already widespread, every member of staff is vital. Unfortunately for employers, this year there are a number of unique factors that could further contribute to summer absence challenges, from fuel costs to fears around catching COVID before a pre-booked trip.

Here are seven absence scenarios we anticipate could cause problems for employers this summer, and how to handle them, so that you can keep productivity high and reduce the burden on your business and other employees.

1. Strikes and transport disruption

The recent rail strikes wreaked havoc on workplaces up and down the country, and RMT boss Mick Lynch says more disruption is “extremely likely” if rail bosses and unions fail to reach a deal.

If transport strikes prevent employees from coming into work this summer, employers’ best bet is to be as accommodating as possible and try and find solutions with affected staff. For example, could they come in later or leave earlier? Could you put them up in a hotel overnight? Can they work from home?

If this isn’t viable, then you could consider enforcing annual leave, provided you give employees twice the amount of notice as the period of leave you wish them to take.

Ultimately however, it is employees’ responsibility to get to and from work; if they are unable to do so and fail to attend work as expected, such absence would be treated as unauthorised. What’s more, because the workplace is open and work is available, they would have no legal right to be paid.

That said, given that the situation is largely out of employees’ control, employers should endeavor to be as reasonable and flexible as possible. While refusal to attend work in theory could lead to disciplinary action, ask yourself: is this really warranted, or does the employee have genuine reasons for not being able to attend?

Given the potential that transport strikes may become a recurring issue, it’s a good idea to devise a policy that deals with these scenarios, setting out the steps employees are required to take. This will help to reduce the risk of disputes later down the line.

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2. School summer holidays

With school summer holidays around the corner, employees with children will need to arrange childcare for a six-week period, which may necessitate taking time off work. 

Annual leave requests are common for this purpose but employers should be mindful of the following requests:

  • Parental leave. This is a statutory right available to birth and adoptive parents or someone who has or expects to have parental responsibility. The right is to 18 weeks’ unpaid leave for each child for the purpose of caring for the child, to be taken up to their 18th birthday. The right is available per child, so if an employee has two children, they would have 36 weeks’ parental leave available to them. Unless employers allow more flexibility, an employee can take up to four weeks’ parental leave for each child in a year and this should, in most circumstances, be taken as whole weeks.
  • Hybrid working. If your employee feels they could carry out their duties from home, they may ask for flexibility to do that rather than arranging alternative childcare. However, this will rarely be a suitable solution for an employer, as it could impact on availability, quality and volume of work completed.
  • Unpaid leave. There is no legal right to unpaid leave in general. However, if an employee doesn’t have sufficient annual leave available, they may request a period of unpaid leave. Approval is at the discretion of an employer.

3. Pre-holiday COVID concerns

Another scenario we’re seeing more often is employees who refuse to attend the workplace in the run-up to their holiday for fear that they might catch COVID-19, which could ruin their plans.

In some cases, this is a general worry; in others, a colleague may actually have COVID. In the latter scenario, the employee may be unwilling to come in themselves, or they may ask that the COVID-positive person is prohibited from attending the workplace.

While it’s understandable that employees wouldn’t want to risk getting sick before their time off, if all mitigations are in place – for example, the employee will be isolated from anyone with COVID – then insisting that the employee comes into work is likely to amount to a reasonable management instruction, the refusal of which could warrant disciplinary action.

As with all health and safety based refusals to work, whether the employee is justified in declining to attend the workplace will rest on whether they have a “reasonable belief” that there is a “serious and imminent” threat to their health and safety, as outlined under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. This will be very fact-specific.

If it’s reasonable to expect the employee to attend work but they simply don’t wish to do so, they could request additional annual leave or ask for unpaid leave, or you may agree that they can work from home for a short period if their role allows.

4. Staff stranded abroad

Travelling abroad this summer is set to be a nightmare, with more than 10,000 fights expected to be scrapped. Ryanair, easyJet and British Airways staff are all staging strike action throughout June and July, further adding to the problem. Of course, this disruption could very well impact workplaces this summer.

If employees are absent due to flight cancellations or delays, they won’t be entitled to be paid unless their contract has some provision to this effect. Employers therefore have a few options: have the employee use their annual leave, agree a period of unpaid leave (though there is no legal right to this), or allow them to work remotely from abroad.

Beyond these options, you might also want to check your leave policy to see whether there are any other provisions for taking time off, such as time off in lieu.

Proactivity is key. You may already have wording within your handbook that touches on adverse weather and travel disruption, but it might be a good idea to strengthen and refine this to specifically cover airline disruptions.

If you’re concerned that your business couldn’t cope with these unplanned absences, you may look to reject holiday requests (or reduce the number approved at any one time) until the situation improves. However, make sure you’re not depriving the employee of the opportunity to take their statutory holiday entitlement and keep in mind the possible impact on engagement and productivity if time off is denied, which could prove just as disruptive as the absence itself.

5. Rising fuel costs

With UK petrol prices at a record high, the cost of commuting to work is spiralling, and in some cases the added expense of fuel on top of rising living costs may mean that employees simply cannot afford to come in.

Whilst getting to work is an employee’s responsibility, there are ways that employers can assist with fuel and general risings costs. For example:

  • Allowing hybrid working where the role can accommodate this;
  • Consider small pay advances or loans;
  • Introduce benefit schemes that provide discounts on everyday essentials; and
  • Introduce a cycle to work scheme or re-advertise if you already have this in place.

All of these steps should help to prevent absences.

We are increasingly seeing how the cost of living is impacting employees’ mental health. Therefore, as well as considering practical ways to financially assist colleagues, it’s also important to provide general wellbeing support such as through an Employee Assistance Programme. Which brings us on to…

6. Mental health

In 2022 more than ever, there are numerous stressors that could be impacting on people’s overall wellbeing, from distressing global events to the cost of living crisis.

According to the CIPD, mental health related absence is the most common cause of long-term sickness absence in UK workplaces and stress-related absences are on the rise, with 37% of employers reporting an increase. Naturally, the impact on businesses can be profound.

If mental health related absences become an issue this summer:

  • Start by obtaining more information about the employee’s condition. This may be contained within personnel files, but if not, don’t worry – the detail is likely to come directly from them.
  • Set up a private meeting with the employee to discuss their attendance record, the history and severity of their conditions, and whether they are currently receiving any medical support outside of work.
  • It may be appropriate to ask for the employee’s consent to write to their GP for more information about their condition, or to ask if they would be happy to see an Occupational Health practitioner who can provide a medical report advising on adjustments within the workplace.
  • In the meantime, signpost the employee to any other support options available, such as an Employee Assistance Programme or a counselling service.

Keep in mind that an individual who has been absent from work by reason of illness may be protected under the Equality Act 2010 if their condition qualifies as a disability – that is, if it has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. As such, you should avoid rushing to discipline or dismiss an employee for mental health related absence, and always obtain medical evidence first.

A series of frequent, short-term mental health related absences should be dealt with via your absence management process. Only once this becomes a long-term problem would dismissal be considered.

For example, if medical evidence is clear that a return to work won’t be possible for many months or even years, or no adjustments or arrangements can be made and it is unclear when or if the employee will be able to return to work, then the next stage will be to progress with a medical capability procedure, which could result in termination of the employee’s employment.

As always, prevention is better than cure. While there may be external factors at play, working conditions and environment can have a huge impact on mental health, so consider how you can provide an environment that supports those with mental health conditions and ensure you are able to identify and mitigate causes of workplace stress. Managers and mental health first aiders should be trained to recognise stressors and support colleagues with mental health conditions.

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