How to manage sick leaves in a remote team
An employee's absence in the office indicates that he or she is heavily sick. But what to do when one needs not to go to the office, or even if there is no office at all?
Before the ever-present coronavirus, it was more than common to go to the office while sneezing or coughing. But, after the harrowing experiences of the COVID-19 outbreak, it is so no more.
This text shows how to combine in a productive and efficient way the remote work paradigm, where one can work while resting in the countryside or while being sick, with reasonable sick leave management and care about employee wellbeing. Considering that, this text covers: Sick leave customs before and after the pandemic HR concern: Presenteeism is easier than ever Cons of working from home while sick (or remote presenteeism) How to manage sick leave with remote teams
Before the pandemic
By that, the open space has been considered a perfect place to spread the disease and a breeding ground for germs of every kind. According to the research published in Aerosol and Air Quality Research, the risk of being infected in an ample space (a store or an open space office) is higher when there is not a high occupancy. And yet, the employees and employers alike did their best to ensure as high occupancy as possible.
This changed significantly during the pandemic, with working from home bringing the most significant change.
After the pandemic
One of the fundamental changes is the popularisation of remote work. The second change is the social trauma of the pandemic, shifting someone's cough from inconvenient and irritating background noise to a life-threatening event with a real risk associated.
By that, the employees were encouraged to stay at home when sick. Yet this new situation has also come with downsides. According to a Beamery study, nearly half of the US employees (49%) felt that remote work would bring progress and development to their careers. On the other hand, though, 65% feel increased pressure to work from home while being sick. This comes with an unsettling belief (shared by 26% of employees) that sick leave days are a thing of the past, with employees expected to deliver the results even while sick at home.
This trend is confirmed in the data. According to the Office for National Statistics, 2020 was the year when the sick leaves in the UK hit a record low of 1.8% of absence rate. The indicator rose to 2.2 in 2021, an indicator that still remained low, despite the ever-present COVID and the high risk of infections.
The situation in the US was comparable, with 2.3% of US employees taking sick leaves in 2020. The situation is comparable to the 2% of sick leaves seen in January 1978, with the highly contagious "Russian flu" spreading in the US.
It is safe to assume that employees got sick in 2020, and the pandemic has hit severely. The challenge is that the majority felt (and was able to) work from home while being ill.
HR concern: Presenteeism is easier than ever
The combination of an unspoken expectation to work while being sick and the new ways of working that can obfuscate the drop in performance have made presenteeism easier than ever.
Presenteeism occurs when one is incapable of working, for example, due to sickness, mental breakdown, or disengagement, yet he or she comes to work and pretends to deliver the results. This approach comes as a creeping threat to the company, with employees being paid and not delivering the results, yet being unseen with that.
Considering that, it is not a good idea to force oneself to work from home while being sick. In fact, there are good reasons not to work from home while sick.
Cons of working from home while sick (or remote presenteeism)
Working from home while sick implies that there is some "work" done, and the results are delivered. It can work if one has only a slight cold or just feels uncomfortable. Yet if the sickness hits hard, effective work is impossible. Considering that, marking the work while being sick comes with multiple downturns:
- Low productivity - with headaches, nausea, or mental breakdown, one is unable to deliver the expected results. According to the research published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, presenteeism carries a much more significant risk of burnout and exhaustion than absenteeism;
- Longer recovery - without getting enough sleep or tranquility, the employee needs more time to recover, hence prolonging the time of lowered productivity and limited results;
- Higher risk of depression and burnout - apart from lowering productivity, presenteeism brings burnout and depression risk. The study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine has shown a clear link between presenteeism and increasing the risk of depression among previously non-depressed employees;
- Hurting the team - last but not least, watching the misery of sick or slowly recovering colleagues hurts the team morale and makes the employees disengaged in work. Also, forcing people to work while being sick hampers any company narration about care or how precious the employees are.
Considering that, it is not about NOT working from home while being sick. It is about not working at all and getting better. For an office-based workforce, it seems a no-brainer. The challenge comes for remote or hybrid employees.
How to manage sick leave with remote teams
The office has provided the management team with a (quite illusionary, in fact) feeling of staying in touch and controlling the workforce. The home-based employee may or may not be sick. It May or may not work and may or may not be productive. That's why sick leaves need to be properly managed with the hybrid or remote workforce.
Use the right tools to manage leaves.
First and foremost, if sick leaves are to be managed, the company needs a proper tool to do so. With the distributed and decentralized workforce, tracking if one is or is not working is much more complicated than just checking if he or she is in the office.
Yet the attendance tracking is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to managing the sick (and any other leaves) in the remote team. A practical and properly designed system needs to support:
- Data collection and actionability - the employer needs to be able to analyze the data about absences, spot the patterns and tackle the hidden issues.
- Ease of use - neither the employees nor the HR specialists and company owner, need or will struggle with unintuitive software. Modern, more sophisticated systems like Calamari come with various integrations, web services, and mobile apps to better serve the organization's needs.
- Flexibility - the system needs to be adjustable to the organization's needs - whether it is hybrid, remote, or office-only. It also needs to integrate smoothly with existing workflows.
- Security - the leave management system stores surprisingly huge and versatile data, sometimes including information not only about absence but also health or personal opinion.
- Scalability - organizations change, sometimes hiring dynamically, and sometimes reducing the headcount. Also, there are freelancers and independent contractors who support the company in operations, and these may also need time off. And their time off also needs to be counted in.
Also, depending on the type of employment contract, the company needs to control if the employee gets enough sick leave days or is not abusing the policy.
Calamari comes as a perfect tool followed by a framework protecting both the employers and the employees.
Set a clear and transparent policy
If there is sick leave, both parties need to respect that. Employees should feel that taking sick leave will not hurt their reputation or render them obsolete. The employer needs to accept that an employee will be unavailable from time to time.
The policy needs to be visible and respected, not a dead regulation. Following the policy, one can get encouraged to take or not take some days off, no matter if one is working from home or remotely.
An effective sick leave policy needs to address the following issues:
- Proof of sickness - is there a doctor's note required, or is everything up to the employee's own feelings? If the former - what should be exactly included in the note? This part of policy needs to stay compliant with local regulations, with various legislations having different approaches and multiple levels of privacy protection;
- Keeping the team in the loop - is it up to the particular employee to appoint someone in charge, or is it the supervisor's duty? Or maybe the replacement needs to be fixed, and one needs to be ready to be in charge by default? This issue needs to be solved;
- How one needs to inform about sick leave - is a text message enough, or one needs to send an email? What about accidents, when the family has to inform the company about one's unavailability? The policy should include several scenarios, taking into account various situation;
- Is there a pay cut associated with sick leave - some companies find it unfair to cut the wage for sick employees. On the other hand, though, a pay cut during sick leave is an established custom in multiple legal frameworks, so the policy needs to include information about it to avoid any misunderstandings.
The sick leave policy should be an essential HR document, a point of authority to anyone needing the information.
Ensure there are some days off to take
Last but not least - when dealing with sick leaves, there may or may not be a limit of days to take. But both parties need to respect it. The number of sick days needs to be reasonable, yet providing the employee with an unlimited amount of paid sick leave is a risk, not every employer wishes to take.
Taking a sick leave while remote or office-based employees should not be vastly different. The key is to use the right tools and tech stack to get the means to manage this issue.
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