COVID-19 | 3 ongoing absence challenges for employers

Written on 18 June 2021

To a large extent, the challenges faced by businesses during the pandemic have been uncharted territory. Business models, products, and ways of working all changed dramatically, and much of this was simply a shot in the dark for many leaders.

But contrastingly, the ever-present challenge of absence has also plagued employers over the past 18 months, with areas such as coronavirus sickness and school closures emerging as fresh pieces in a familiar puzzle. 

With that in mind, as organisations prepare to bounce back from the pandemic, a great deal of focus must be applied to developing a more resilient, long-term strategy for dealing with employee absence. And crucially, one that encompasses the more challenging and complex forms of absence that have emerged in recent times.

Here are three areas that employers will need to consider.


With some studies suggesting that symptoms can persist for as long as six months (and longer in some instances), long COVID is bound to be something that remains relevant for employers post-pandemic. 

As a result, organisations must remain wary and vigilant in the months ahead, even as the virus’ most common form continues to fade from the population.

The simplest and most obvious starting point here is for all leaders to remain conscious of the symptoms. According to the NHS, they can include:

  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Problems with memory and concentration (‘brain fog’)
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness
  • Pins and needles
  • Joint pain
  • Depression and anxiety
  • A high temperature, cough, headaches, sore throat, changes to sense of smell or taste
  • Rashes

This basic level of prudence may enable employers to take the first steps in identifying concerns and signing the individual off work, even if they appear indifferent or resistant to the situation.

But perhaps more importantly, the onus is on the employer to support the individual in an absence scenario and work towards a viable solution for all parties.

This may include arranging a health assessment, identifying adjustments that can be made to working conditions (such as adapted hours or workspaces), or designing a temporary flexible work pattern during the recovery period.

And crucially, employers must be abundantly aware that standard sickness absence and sick pay parameters will apply in a long COVID scenario. Needless to say, that should be communicated to the individual immediately so as to temper any potential financial anxieties.

Overall, the importance of handling cases of long COVID diplomatically cannot be underestimated. Not only is the physical health of the individual at stake, but mismanagement in this scenario could also cause considerable harm to engagement, retention, and the wider reputation of the organisation.

In addition to this, employers must be even more careful where any condition has lasted or may last 12 months or more and meet other criteria (see Acas for more details), since this could amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010. If this is the case, the employee will be protected from discriminatory treatment or dismissal and there are additional requirements placed on employers to make reasonable adjustments.

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Travel quarantine

Also high on the list of COVID-related absence concerns for employers is travel quarantine, which, again, is likely to be an ongoing issue for the time being.

The latest episode in this saga took place earlier this month when the previously ‘green-listed’ Portugal was reverted to ‘amber’ at a moment’s notice. Thousands of holidaymakers were left bewildered and frustrated, finding out that they would be required to self-isolate for 10 days upon their return.

With this being just one of a series of disorienting instances surrounding travel restrictions throughout the pandemic, employers must remain hyper-conscious of this issue in the months ahead.

What’s more, the statutory sick pay (SSP) solution remains hotly contested when it comes to travel quarantine. In this scenario, the law states that for an individual to qualify for SSP, it must be “known or reasonably suspected that he is infected or contaminated”. 

However, the debate rages on as to whether this can be “reasonably suspected”, and therefore this must be approached on a case-by-case basis depending on the travel destination.

In any case, with the infrastructure already in place for many organisations, homeworking may be the obvious solution in this instance.

Failing this (likely in sectors such as retail, hospitality and manufacturing), employees can either be encouraged to treat the absence as annual leave, or the employer may choose to register it as unpaid leave. Also, following the revelation in the press on 17 June 2021 that the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (furlough scheme) may be available to employees who are self-isolating, this may be another option, although it would be wise to check with HMRC (preferably using their webchat facility so you have any advice in writing) whether you can claim in your particular situation.

However, it would be wise for employers to consider prevention rather than cure. Consistently and clearly communicating the government guidance on travel and the company’s stance on travel quarantine absence may serve to prevent such a scenario arising entirely. 

Mental health

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, employers must remain alert when it comes to mental health and stress-related absence.

This is an issue that has proven to be common and pervasive throughout the pandemic. In fact, a CIPD study found that stress-related absence has increased for over one third of businesses in the last year.

The long-term implications should not be underestimated; whilst other forms of absence will subside post-pandemic, mental health and stress inevitably will not. With that in mind, taking the opportunity to strengthen policies and procedures will continue to pay dividends for years to come. 

Once again, prevention is undoubtedly better than cure when it comes to mental health, and organisations must take that principle to heart. Investments should be made across the business to provide resources and support for employees who find themselves struggling, whether work is the main catalyst or just a contributing factor.

As always, encouraging managers to be more conscious of employees’ workloads, offering one-to-one counsel to individuals on a regular basis (particularly if someone is working on their own remotely or from home), and generally cultivating a supportive ‘open door’ environment are all essential steps to take.

Benefits can play a key role here too, with many organisations opting to subsidise counselling and therapy services for employees to utilise in times of need, and offering extra days of annual leave to help prevent burnout. 

If, despite these preventative measures, poor mental health and stress does transpire into absence, it’s vital that employers take the right steps, particularly in a legal and discriminatory context.

Leaders must remain conscious that a mental health issue can be legally considered a disability if certain criteria apply, and so a delicate, measured approach is undoubtedly required.

Overcome absence obstacles with our specialist support

At a time when staff shortages are rife across multiple sectors, effective absence management is essential. From helping you to strengthen your system of safety measures around work-related stress to developing your absence policy and advising on tricky employee issues, our combination of Employment Law, HR and Health & Safety support will help you to keep your team together and avoid costly mistakes.

For more information, call 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.

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