Immunising the business against Swine Flu sickies

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" Smart business and HR leaders would be well advised to revisit their absence procedures to ensure that they are well equipped to tackle the issue. " Redshaw
A swine flu epidemic could cost the UK economy £50 billion, mostly in lost revenue and sick pay, according to a recent survey by the Ernst & Young ITEM Club. Media speculation, however, alleges that a mild case of work-shyness, rather than an office-wide flu epidemic, has boosted this cost. Kate Redshaw, a senior associate in the employment team at law firm Burges Salmon LLP considers some practical ways to tackle the problem.

According to this year’s Absence Management Survey Report from the CIPD, the average cost of employee sickness is £692, per person per year so many businesses can ill afford for employees to claim the odd ‘duvet day’ under the guise of suspected swine flu.

Smart business and HR leaders would be well advised to revisit their absence procedures to ensure that they are well equipped to tackle the issue. There are two key approaches to reducing employee absenteeism – prevention and cure.

Set out and adhere to a clear absence management policy. This will not only discourage ‘duvet days’ but will also ensure that you don’t inadvertently treat an employee unfairly which could, in turn, lead to claims.

Return-to-work interviews are one of the most effective ways to manage absences. They may deter absence in the first place, and they can help identify any issues at an early stage and provide managers with an opportunity to start a dialogue with an employee about their absence levels.

Insisting that employees telephone their managers personally to report that they are going to be off sick acts as a useful deterrent. Make it clear that emails and/or texts are not sufficient, and neither is a call from their mum, girlfriend, or the next-door neighbour’s dog etc.

Keep a record of absences and reasons cited in order to track and, therefore, identify undue absence levels. This will also help highlight any possible underlying causes that might need to be actioned such as stress.

The primary message to send to employees is that short-term absence will not go unnoticed. Line managers have a crucial role to play in effective absence management. Train your line managers in how to deal with absence issues in line with your policy, how to spot a genuine sickness issue from a “duvet day” and ask them to watch for and act on particular trends, such as repeated absences on a Monday or a Friday.

Whilst a robust approach to absence management should achieve the desired results, be aware of the potential for disability discrimination. If a person is disabled, employers are obliged to make reasonable adjustments to prevent their being disadvantaged in the workplace. Depending on the nature of the disability, this may mean accepting that the disabled person is likely to need more time off than other non-disabled people.

If whatever virus is ‘going round’ always seems to catch up with your team just after the weekend, consider making short notice flexi days and half days of leave part of your employee benefits offering. This could help reduce the costs associated with impromptu absence when the sun comes out as the time could be deducted from the employee’s holiday entitlement. Alternatively, if you suspect, despite your best efforts, that employees might still be taking unnecessary sick leave, consider rewarding good attendance rates.


It can be difficult to prove that an employee is “faking” it (although Facebook now often offers all the proof one needs, so it’s always worth checking that). In the absence of concrete evidence, however, it is probably safer to discipline for lack of satisfactory attendance if a person is regularly absent.

Show people you mean business and don’t be afraid to start formal disciplinary proceedings where appropriate trigger points are reached. Be consistent in your treatment though; just because absence is high in a team of younger people does not necessarily mean that they are all sunning themselves on Brighton beach. The trigger points need to be applied objectively across the business. Again, making sure line managers are aware of how your absence management policy operates will help to achieve this.

Review the new ACAS Code of Practice on Discipline and Grievance, which came into force in April, and make sure that your procedures comply with it. Employment tribunals can increase compensation if an employer has unreasonably failed to comply with the Code. Some employers will operate a separate capability or absence procedure whilst others will deal with capability issues through the disciplinary policy. If you do have a separate capability or absence procedure, make sure that the basic principles of fairness that are set out in the ACAS Code are followed.

Businesses that adopt a firm but fair approach to absence management and are clearly seen to be in control of the process should find that non-genuine absenteeism is kept to a minimum.

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  1. Swine Flu? Oh Really!

    We have put up with stories about swine flu for over six months and now the latest one is that the return to school of our children is going to trigger the renewal of the outbreak.
    As soon as the first new case is reported there will be renewed calls to close the schools, send the children home, isolate anyone suspected of having the disease and fill ourselves with vaccine at the first possible indication of symptoms.

    When the first stories of this outbreak hit the press I found it difficult to take them seriously at all in the wake of the SARS and avian flu debacles that had both shown how readily the media could manipulate us, and their constant appetite to do so.

    At first I thought that the swan that had apparently died of avian flue in Scotland had landed on a pig and the swan, seeing the pig leaning in close to hear its last words had gathered its remaining strength and triumphantly kissed the pig. Thus the avian variety had become porcine.

    But no, it soon became evident that amorous animals were not the cause at all, no this was real.
    The story that I gathered from the early reports of the outbreak were that it came from Mexico city where twenty four cases had been reported and it was these reports that triggered the worldwide scare.
    I recall thinking at the time that in a city of six million people where two million of them live below the poverty line without clean water, homes or access to basic medical care, how did they know that twenty four people had flu, and why would they care if they had?

    I began to suspect that the whole thing came from a story sent in by a journalist who had just come back from a vacation in Mexico and wanted to make some money to pay for his holiday.

    Then the first report came in of two cases in the UK.
    A Scottish couple had been admitted to hospital with “Flu like “ symptoms,
    The media were ecstatic,
    Pig flu is here! Pig flu is here! We told you so! We told you so!

    Then we heard an interview on the radio with a very puzzled Mexican Doctor who said that he was having difficulty understanding how the couple had got the same kind of flu because the reported outbreak was in Mexico city, and the couple had been on holiday in Cancun, more than six hundred miles away.

    The day after these first reported cases in the UK we heard another interview with a different Mexican doctor as journalists frantically looked for something new to say. This time the reporter called the outbreak Swine flu and the doctor stopped him, saying that the outbreak in Mexico city was H1N1, which is not Swine flu, just a normal variant of the ordinary flu that we get every year.
    But the reporter was not to be denied and ploughed on regardless saying, “Never mind that, how many new cases are there?”
    Never let the facts get in the way of a good story

    .In the ensuing six months we had to suffer new outbreaks of indignation every time a new case was reported, we watched as the drug companies geared up for an international spending spree on vaccines and we looked on in horror as school after school was closed because someone had caught the flu.

    Now that the drug companies have had time to stock pile the huge amounts of vaccine that it is assumed we will need they are predicting a return to the level of hysteria that was first generated six months ago, because they now have enough vaccine to deal with it!

    What has actually happened in those six months?
    In the UK in the last six months less than 30 people have died who were thought to have swine (H1N1) flu. They did not die from the flu but died because they were very ill anyway or had conditions that the flu may have aggravated.

    Compare that with the five to eight thousand who die every year in the UK from existing conditions, worsened by ordinary flu, and you realise how out of proportion the reaction to this outbreak really is.

    The only thing that makes this flu seem worse is the media coverage started by irresponsible journalists who want to frighten people to increase the impact of their story and continued by those who have a vested interest in perpetuating the scare.

    If you catch H1N1 there is no reason to deal with it any differently from any other flu virus with the possible exception that you will probably feel less ill if you don’t read the nonsense that they print about it in the papers.

    And if you feel that you are missing out because the flu you have got is not a special kind of flu after all, Try kissing a pig, that might work.

    Peter A Hunter

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