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Pandemic over, epidemics back in?

Blog end of pandemic content 1

Isn’t it nice to stand at the bar and order a pint? Or wander around the shops, mask off if you want, with someone who isn’t in your bubble? Even though it looks like we’ve cracked Covid, public health is now more visible to employers and employees than ever before. But have any lessons been learned?

In 2019, 10 days off work would be a pretty serious matter — a really bad illness, with a sick note potentially required, and maybe even a return-to-work interview to check everything is OK. The absence would be recorded, and support given should further long-term sickness occur in the following few months. Work would be covered, maybe even a get-well card sent in the post.

Fast forward to 2021 and a 10-day absence is almost expected. And sometimes you don’t even need to show symptoms of being ill to be laid up and unable to head into the office.

The 10-day latency period at the height of the pandemic and subsequent pingdemic that followed this year has been an utter pain in the neck as managers struggle to cover shifts, distribute workload or cancel meetings as apologetic employees ring in with a positive result or an NHS app alert. Gone is the due diligence with ill workers, replaced with a cursory check to see they aren’t still testing positive, then a swift reintroduction back into the mosh pit.

Fingers crossed, and finger in the air, those problems are becoming history. But a new potential productivity and calendar wrecker may be just around the corner.

One flu over the cuckoo’s nest

In autumn and winter, especially on the days following public holidays and popular sporting events, calendars become riddled with small holes as a handful of individuals dial in with a fever, bad belly or sniff, and fair enough. A robust illness system is critical for organisations to work effectively, and an important cultural crux — if we aren’t well, we shouldn’t be expected to work.

However, the reality is different. Don’t lie by saying you’ve never worked through the common cold, one of the most damaging viruses known to man, during a busy period. You’ve probably done the same with the flu without realising it.

And in the post-pandemic world, when we’re suddenly waylaid with a common illness we probably would have worked through previously, we may be more likely to stay at home to recover. After all, we’re much more aware of infectivity, and we can just work from home now anyway, right?

This uptick in sick days and absences from the workplace will certainly have an effect on our organisations’ abilities to function. But here’s the really scary part.

With pretty much all of us staying at home last winter, the NHS is expecting the common winter flu, which already kills more people than Covid-19 each year, to go berserk come the colder weather. If the flu circulates in smaller populations, as it has done for the last few years, it can apparently come back with a vengeance.

This means we could see the flu becoming the dominant reason for illness, with our slightly weakened immune systems and sudden return to cramped spaces making for another headache of massive proportions. It’s not quite time to put our feet up yet.

What you need to do now

Now, it’s all about learning our lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic and focusing on the F and A words: flexibility and agility.

Having a good list of freelancers who can spring into action is a good start. Reassess your hiring procedure for ad-hoc workers and ensure your people teams have the resources to get bodies in at short notice.

Look at your working culture too. If the illness is mild, are your teams happy to continue working for home? Will they feel disengaged or stressed, thinking that they’re letting the side down by ‘showing weakness’ by getting ill? It may be time to reassess your policy towards illness if this feels the case, and make it really clear that it’s absolutely fine to be ill, as long the correct procedure is followed.

Are you offering flu vaccines to your staff at no extra cost? Yes, it’s another expense, but just do it.

Perhaps most importantly, it may be time to look at how you pay people if they are ill. The fear of losing money by taking time off work could be forcing ill and infectious colleagues into the office, where they infect even more of their colleagues, turning a mild inconvenience into a full-blown resource disaster. Make it easier for people to take time off when they need to, and figure out how to deal with those who abuse the system. And stop asking for a doctor’s note — it’s 2021, have a little trust.

The other epidemic

Sorry to be so doom and gloom with this topic, as we usually like to write about positive and exciting things — which we have bagloads of across the rest of the blog. But this topic is really important and could be the difference between an enjoyable winter this year, with Christmas parties and bonuses, rather than another winter riddled with absences and disengagement. One of these could be the overtime epidemic.

Oh Mark, not another thing to panic about, I hear you scream. Thanks to being constantly connected, many of us are working longer than ever before, despite having more flexibility than ever before. But obviously, this is perhaps worse than an illness that clears up after a week or so.

But this one is an easy one to solve. Stop sending emails after 5pm, and make it part of your culture to switch of screens when contracted hours are over. Don’t make it hard to book time off. And discipline and educate those who consistently work beyond their allotted hours. You may even find that sick days drop as a result…

Are you worried about what could happen to your organisation this winter? Have you already set new health and wellbeing plans in place? Are you putting your head in the sand, hopeful that this winter will be a cold one? Join the discussion in the comments section, or find me on LinkedIn or Twitter and let me know your thoughts.

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