Winter and COVID’s second wave: How to help your employees cope with work absences

January 19, 2021, 3:00 PM UTC
“It’s easy to focus on how employee absence impacts your business, rather than how it impacts your employees,” writes Jonathan Greechan. “The truth is, they’re one and the same.”
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In mid-April, more than 2 million employees in the United States missed work owing to illness—the highest number on record. Now, at the start of 2021, the second wave of COVID-19 has recorded an even higher number of infections—over 100,000 a day.

As winter advances, sickness increases, and our collective mental health suffers. Business leaders will have to assume that many of their employees will be forced to take time off work owing to their own ailments, the illness of a loved one, mental fatigue, bereavement, and more.

Apart from the human toll of illness and loss, absenteeism costs U.S. businesses billions every year in lost productivity. This means lost revenue and delays on your strategic projects, and it could also end up damaging your work culture and team morale.

It’s exhausting to think that we have to gear up for yet another overhaul of our personal and work lives, but it is absolutely critical to prepare now. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst, and assume that absences in the first few months of this year will rise much higher than during the first wave. At my company, for example, we are planning for a 30% loss of productivity through at least this quarter. 

Here are some ways you can ensure business continuity during what will likely be a turbulent winter. 

Lock down your absentee policy

Research shows that for the past three years, fewer than half of employers have had a strategy in place to manage staff absences. Without these parameters, there aren’t safety nets in place to cover the responsibilities of the people who aren’t able to work—so business operations suffer.

Creating a clear absentee policy is the first step to preventing roadblocks. This should detail what your stance is on sick leave, time off for people who have to care for loved ones, bereavement leave, and vacations. That framework has to include how many days of paid leave you can offer, as well as what kind of COVID-19-related scenarios qualify for paid leave. (For example, what should your policy be if someone is asymptomatic but required to quarantine? This guide suggests how businesses could react to different types of pandemic-related absences). 

At Founder Institute, for example, we are offering any team member one month of paid time off to recover from COVID-19 or to help care for a friend or family member who needs assistance recovering.

From an administration perspective, you need to stay on top of everyone’s absences so you can smartly plan time off across the company. There are a whole host of tools that can help with the process and provide an overview of when people are out of office—such as, and BambooHR

You should actively encourage healthy staff to take time off throughout the year. As the founder, that means using your vacation days when things are stable and attendance is good, so people follow by example. This also means you’ll lower the risk of too many staff members being off at the same time.

Set up a buddy system

A simple way to relieve some of the problems of absences is to ensure that each team member has a “buddy” who can carry out the most urgent parts of their role should they need to take off. You can even cross-pollinate teams and train individuals for the skills and tools needed to complete duties in other areas of the business. This not only ensures continuity, it creates opportunities for career development and allows you to train up promising team members in their next logical role in the company. 

This partner system requires some initial prep. Set aside a mandatory session lasting at least one or two hours, in which employees run their buddy through their most critical duties, weekly tasks and meetings, programs and accounts used. All partners should have a common platform or grant each other access to accounts, files, and calendars. 

It’s also important to manage expectations—you can’t assume that anyone will take on double the work when his or her buddy is out. The idea is more that they handle critical tasks and communications, take important meetings, explain any delays to clients, and help their buddy catch up once they return. In the age of COVID, we have all been conditioned to accept some level of delay.

Another option is to have a network of gig workers and freelancers who can step in when necessary. If you take this route, be mindful that you should provide them with regular work, so they are constantly learning and growing with the business. Not only will you support freelancers, who have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, you’ll also have a wider talent pool to leverage when you need it the most.

Break down your silos

Strict hierarchies and “silos” of information in small businesses can be detrimental. Ideas need to be passed around horizontally and enriched as they go; if thought processes and tasks are concentrated in a single person, the creative process freezes. Even worse, you are putting your business at great risk if you have several “mission critical” tasks that can only be performed by one person.

Now is the moment to identify and remove any bottlenecks in your business. To prepare at Founder Institute, we had each member of the management team list the “mission critical” tasks only they could perform. We then created a quick template document for them to outline how someone else could accomplish those tasks in their absence, identified who could perform the tasks, and then scheduled training sessions.

Keep in mind that you may need to have an honest conversation with managers who might be possessive or uncommunicative about their work responsibilities, and thus find it hard to delegate. Make an effort to break down these habits, but understand that they are natural.  

Support your absentee workers

It’s easy to focus on how employee absence impacts your business, rather than how it impacts your employees. The truth is, they’re one and the same: If your staff is taking time off owing to illness, bereavement, or a big life event, they need to know that they’re still a valued part of the team. On a human level, everyone has been affected by the pandemic, and showing a little empathy goes a long way in helping people heal. 

Similarly, you need to shield people from work until they’re ready. Don’t contact them unless it’s a real emergency that they absolutely have to be involved in. A full recovery is far easier if people don’t have additional stress hanging over them. If you’ve successfully prepared an absentee policy and partner system, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Considering the fact that many startups are saving money on real estate and the “perks” of the job—like free snacks around the office or working lunches—leaders should reinvest that money into promoting health and well-being among staff. Digital tools like Calm can help encourage individual meditation and relaxation. Frog Systems is a platform with positive stories from people who have survived personal battles: In communicating messages of hope and encouragement, it’s a powerful way to support employees who may be hesitant to share their experiences with others.

Absenteeism is an inescapable obstacle in any business, but remember this: It’s always better than “presenteeism,” when employees work even when they shouldn’t be. In fact, presenteeism is estimated to cost U.S. workplaces $150 billion a year, far more than absence owing to sickness. Accommodating rising absences—and preparing extensively—will make your business more resilient, while also carving out new ways of boosting morale, advancing people’s careers, and creating a culture where mental well-being comes first.

Jonathan Greechan is the cofounder of the global pre-seed accelerator Founder Institute.

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