The fact that the first day of the 2011 Wimbledon Championships saw rain and the exit of a British player will not do much to detract from the levels of interest in the championship over the coming weeks. As the tension builds in week two, the likelihood will increase that some employees might be tempted to take some time off work to watch a match.
Whilst there is a risk of this happening, employers should be careful not to assume automatically that sickness absence during major sporting events is not genuine. As employers may have grounds to be suspicious about some employees, particularly where they have a history of short-term sickness absence, their sickness absence policy becomes an essential document. Of course employers who have tracked absence patterns will have more information on which to base their assumptions.
Employers who are suspicious about an employee’s absence should investigate further by questioning the employee when he/she initially reports the absence, or by conducting return-to-work interviews, which can help identify short-term absence problems at an early stage. They will also provide an opportunity to begin dialogue with staff about underlying issues, which might be causing the absence.
There are various approaches organisations could take to cure what’s sometimes labelled as ‘summer sickness’, which prevails mainly on sunny or sporting days. A lot will depend on the size of the organisation and the resources available:
- Planned absence is always much easier for employers to plan for than unscheduled absence so it might be advisable to send out reminders to staff well in advance that annual leave needs to be booked for sporting events. Alternatively, employers could consider offering unpaid leave.
- Employees could be offered the chance to work at home and schedule their work around sporting or other summer events (so long as employees are clear about the work that is expected of them whilst working from home). To this end, employers could avoid the costs associated with unplanned absenteeism.
- Organisations could also offer flexible working hours in the workplace to allow for people arriving later than 9am or leaving earlier than 5pm. However, core hours and adequate cover may need to be agreed to ensure services or operations are not unduly affected.
- If all else fails, organisations could offer the opportunity and facilities to watch sporting events at work, which would increase feelings of camaraderie between staff.
The more positive the working environment, the less likely it is that employees will be tempted to take unscheduled time off work for reasons other than sickness. The Health for Work Adviceline (www.health4work.nhs.uk) can offer guidance to employers seeking to achieve this. By calling 0800 0 77 88 44 and speaking to an adviser, employers can get advice on the various methods of improving the working environment and reducing absence, including:
- offering encouragement to employees and showing an interest in them in order to increase employee loyalty;
- giving regular performance feedback to staff to let them know where they stand and make work a more enjoyable experience;
- letting employees know what is expected of them by establishing specific performance standards, goals, and deadlines, and communicating them clearly;
- providing assistance writing a sickness absence policy or amending an existing one.