HR · 23 April 2020

How to deal with staff holiday and presenteeism during COVID-19

How to create a staff training plan

Steve Arnold, CEO of absence management platform, e-days, gives small businesses advice on dealing with staff holiday rights and work expectations during lockdown….

With most of us consigned to working from home for the foreseeable future, it can be all too easy to fall into dangerous working habits which will have long-term ramifications.

While we should celebrate the fact that our increased connectivity means many businesses have been able to offer near-seamless continuity for their customers and staff, those same businesses need to be aware of potential pitfalls for their employees’ wellbeing at this time.

On the 27th March, the Government announced that key workers, who have not taken all their statutory annual leave, will now be allowed to carry it over into the next two leave years.

It states that employees can carry over up to four weeks of unused leave. This allows staff to continue working during the outbreak in an effort to combat coronavirus, without the worry of losing their annual leave. I believe that the new ruling should be commended, but there are many elements of a seemingly simple announcement to consider, and it creates an interesting conundrum for UK businesses.

Leave left untaken

None is more pressing than the old foe of ‘presenteeism’. We’ve seen a huge number of cancelled holidays on the e-days system in the last couple of weeks, and this has two major ramifications.

In the short term, people are cancelling much-needed leave and putting themselves at risk of burnout. Obviously with no immediate prospect of being able to leave the house too much, let alone jet off for some sun, sea and sand, a lot of people want to make the most of their leave and re-organise for another time. In fact, more than 9000 holidays were cancelled in the month of March according to the latest e-days data.

Businesses should encourage individuals to spread their annual leave throughout the year as research shows failure to do so will result in employee burnout which has a direct impact on mental health. Encouraging your employees to take a break can reduce the risk of employee burnout.

The second ramification is less pressing now, but could catch a lot of companies out in, say, August, when restrictions on freedom of movement may have been lifted. Already a peak holiday period, companies risk being inundated with fresh requests from potentially very large workforces all at once, leaving them with potentially no workers on hand at a busy time for everyone.

A company with 250 staff will process approximately 4000 requests and approvals for annual leave per year. With the extra leave entitlement following the new carry-over ruling, these requests could be increased by up to 50%.

The importance of ‘switching off’

Professor Stephen Wood from the university of Leicester recently wrote to the Guardian raising some interesting points on research he had conducted on the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. Based on the Government’s workplace employment relations survey of the time, the research showed that;

“presenteeism increased as a consequence of job insecurity, as employees wished to appear committed to their jobs. And trust in management, not just in the Government, is crucial. The research also showed that actions taken by management increased distrust in a way that also led to presenteeism.”

It can be really tough to switch off from work when it’s a) right in front of you in a space meant for living, and b) quite possibly of greater importance than ever to ‘get right’.

Most businesses and employees are going to take the practical view that the next few months really do require extra effort and some over-delivery where necessary. It will be a really busy and disruptive period for all businesses, not just those in the hospitality and retail sectors, as sales and new business takes a hit, and companies face the prospect of not being able to send or receive crucial goods and services.

If employees are concerned about their job security – despite recent government assurances – then the temptation is there to make themselves available 24/7.

How to avoid burnout and other mental health challenges

Companies in turn might be tempted to accept or even encourage this behavior – they shouldn’t. This sort of presenteeism will only serve to add more stress to an already isolated and under pressure workforce. Managers should be extra alert for people potentially working while unwell or exhibiting other unhealthy behaviors. It’s good for the immediate wellbeing of staff, but also for the longer-term benefit to businesses when a degree of normality returns. After all, when business really does go ‘usual’ again, you want healthy, motivated and happy workers on board.

It’s important to discuss mental health in the workplace, whether people are together in an office or not. Data can help identify when it’s potentially becoming an issue, but whether it’s the individual or the employer raising concerns, it’s more important than ever to have the tools in place to combat these issues – integrated virtual GP appointments and wellbeing website resources being just two.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Steve Arnold is the current chief executive office of e-days, the global absence management platform which provides mid-market and large-scale companies with an effective answer to complex HR issues around staff leave. e-days lets companies have more detailed and actionable insight into absence trends across the workforce, so as to better support employees in terms of wellbeing and productivity. Steve previously studied Law and Marketing at university before going on to complete an MBA at Warwick Business School. He then made the decision to move into the complex and rapidly-developing world of absence management in 2008.

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