Is Absence Management In A Pandemic Possible?

Practicing absence management is crucial to your company's resiliency. Absence management monitors employees' absences in the event of an emergency, and is the best way to protect your organization's productivity.

When planning for any business interruption, especially pandemics, emergency preparedness managers must consider how they will continue operations through absence management. It’s important that they work with the human resources department to get the most from this planning.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) suggests that when planning for emergencies, such as pandemics, employers should establish a return-to-work program that includes:

  • A written return-to-work policy
  • An interactive process where the employee, manager, HR representative, case manager and/or physician can talk about return-to-work possibilities
  • Guidelines for the duration of disability based on diagnosis
  • Accommodations to help facilitate employees’ return to work
  • Nurse case management

How To Put Absence Management In Practice

Although every organization differs, they all share one truth – absenteeism leads to lost productivity and ultimately impacts the bottom line. Companies and their emergency preparedness and human resources managers can mitigate the risk of absenteeism during and following a pandemic. This way, if the office is closed or not safe due to the outbreak, employees can continue to work.

Some options include:

Remote working: Depending on the type of work your business does, remote working may be the best way to protect productivity during a pandemic.

“You have to look at how interdependent your employees are,” said Meg Nash, an emergency preparedness professional and public health expert, during a recent AlertFind webinar. “Do they need to be near each other – or at least in the same location? Employees in manufacturing likely won't be able to do it. As long as you trust your employees to work from home, it should be successful.”

Alternative projects: Think beyond the day-to-day tasks to find other ways for employees to contribute while they away from the office.

“If you have employees who cannot work on their normal assignments at home, look at other items that contribute to the business but were not part of the bottom line,” Nash said. “Use this as the time to work on your company's blog, do some competitive research or develop a white paper.”

Social distancing: This technique emerged in 1918 in reaction to the Spanish Flu. “It is quite literally the practice of keeping a distance of about six feet. Overcrowding was banned on public transport, but can you imagine that today? I think it would be difficult to actually enforce in a major city,” said business continuity expert Robert Clark.

In an office setting where the situation is controlled a bit more, he added, you can enable social distancing by initiating work shifts and/or keeping workers at least two desks away from each other rather than side-by-side.

Communicating In A Crisis

Although a pandemic can move very quickly, you may still have time to take action to protect your employees and your business operations. Having a plan in place allows you to act quickly, implementing health precautions and limiting the spread of the disease.

Nash suggests monitoring federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control or Department of Homeland Security to provide information to your employees via as many channels as possible – like using an emergency notification system to send messages on email, text and phone as well as social media and online.

You can also use a company hotline to provide direction and instruction about office closures and openings and the remote working policy. Nash said that the issue to consider, in addition to its content, is when to initiate the hotline.

“One of the big things is to identify the trigger to activate it,” Nash said. “Will it be an absenteeism rate? Or if you're notified by the local health department that public activities are canceled? You also have to consider in your plan who will be responsible for activating it.”

Another key component of absence management is the promotion of employee health initiatives. One example is to host a flu vaccination clinic just before the start of flu season.

Though it may be burdensome, most employees will be glad they can take 10 minutes during their workday to get a free vaccination administered by a healthcare professional. With a healthy workforce, you can better ensure that you meet what Clark describes as the “minimum business continuity objective.” Post-pandemic, “your organization could survive working at maybe 20% or 50% of its normal capacity for a period of time,” he said.

Should You Consider A Vaccination Program?

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) conducted a cost-benefit analysis for vaccination clinic in a number of different organizations. Here’s what they found:

For example, a study of a Malaysian petrochemical plant demonstrated that workplace vaccination clearly decreased influenza-like illness rates and absenteeism. A cost-benefit analysis of a workplace vaccination program at a Brazilian pharma-chemical company yielded a net benefit of $121,441 or $35.45 per vaccinated employee in 1997 U.S. dollars. A clinical trial at six North Carolina textile plants showed that a vaccination program saved $22.36 per lost workday and $2.58 per dollar invested.

Taking proactive measures show a measurable return on investment. Additionally, compared to the potential exposure from lawsuits and settlements, implementing and sustaining an effective absence management program will likely be considered money well-spent.

Having an absence management plan is an essential part of emergency preparedness. For more insight from Bob Clark about how a pandemic can impact your organization, watch the recent webinar, “Pandemics: Preparing For Business’s Next Big Threat.”

You are well on your way toward protecting your staff and organization.

Take the next step toward protecting your organization by learning more about emergency notification systems and the vital role they play in your emergency preparedness plan.