Staff Shortages And Turnover May Be Caused By Your Pre-Omicron Sick Leave Policies

Antiquated sick leave policies can wrongly encourage sick workers to come in or staff shortages because healthy workers stay home.

Before you jump to the conclusion that sick leave is strictly “an administrative HR problem,” you must realize that the Covid pandemic has transformed this traditionally “back-office” area into a major strategic factor that directly impacts employee health and productivity. Why? The pandemic has dramatically increased the number of days your employees can’t or shouldn’t work (along with their negative consequences). During the same time period, the explosion of remote work has blurred the definition and the tracking of “what is a sick day.” As a result, most firms now have an antiquated policy that is likely a primary cause of four of today’s most common and severe workforce problems. 

  1. Employee spread Covid infections
  2. Frequent staffing shortages that impact operations
  3. Record employee turnover, and
  4. Attracting quality talent 

Each of these impacts is further exacerbated by the arrival of the easily spread of the Omicron variation. Its prevalence is now making updating your sick leave policy and practices a top business priority. In fact, recent research reveals that 3 in 10 employees work at a firm that began offering or expanded their paid sick leave benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. This article covers both why you must now immediately update your sick leave policies and the areas within those policies that most need updating.

Reasons Why Sick Leave Has Become A Strategic Issue Under Covid

There are many reasons why your sick leave policies now need executive attention to ensure that they are significantly updated. Those drivers include

  • The costs of a sick employee coming to work are now much greater – historically, not coming to work simply wasted a few hundred payroll dollars. But now, because the latest variant of Covid is so easily spread. The costs resulting from a sick employee coming to work and infecting other workers and your customers have increased dramatically. In addition, when sick workers do come to work, they are much more likely to be less productive. If they display visible symptoms, they will likely distract everyone else on their team.
  • A larger percentage of your employees are now absent from work – so many of your employees will be out because they are sick or in required quarantine. A larger percentage of all employees will need or want to be absent from work over many more total days. And unfortunately, with so many more deaths in employee families, your bereavement policies will also need to be updated.
  • Inadequate sick leave coverage is now a major cause of employee turnover – one of the reasons your employee turnover is currently at record levels is due to your inadequate or confusing sick day benefits. Turnover is more likely when your employees are unnecessarily worried about catching the virus or having adequate sick leave.
  • The sick leave issue is hurting your recruiting in almost all cases immediate problems – it’s now true that Covid protection and sick leave coverage are at the top of mind of many potential recruits. So realize that it’s now common for applicants to completely steer away from any organization that doesn’t appear to meet their sick leave expectations. You now need to make sick leave availability a key employer branding element and a visible selling point to remain competitive in recruiting (especially among applicants for nonexempt jobs).
  • An increase in remote workers makes identifying and tracking sick days more difficult – with a dramatic increase in the percentage of remote workers. It has become much more difficult to define and identify a sick day among remote workers. It will be hard to know when a remote worker took a whole or partial sick day without an updated reporting system. 
  • An effective sick leave policy must now also protect the health of your workers – after you resolve all of your sick leave issues. You must also realize that with the prevalence of the Omicron variant. Your actions must go further to proactively prevent many employee infections by subtly encouraging your employees to get fully vaccinated. Also, educate them to know and consciously avoid risky behaviors inside and outside work.
  • You must adhere to the many laws that now impact employee sick leave – there are now numerous new country, state, and local laws and regulations that require and regulate the offering of sick leave. So your sick leave policies will need to be constantly updated. But in many cases, these policies will also need to be localized to fit the region.
If you can only do one thin – informally survey a handful of your employees and managers. To determine the immediate problems caused by having outdated sick leave policies and practices. And then focus on fixing the top handful of those immediate problems.

Action Areas That Will Need Updating

Unfortunately, there is no standard benchmark updated sick leave policy to study and copy. However, your revised policy will need to be updated in most of the following 13 high-impact subject areas in almost all cases.

  • The timing of your policy update – with the tremendous impact of the new Omicron variant. You must immediately update your sick leave-related policies and practices to reduce team turnover and staffing shortages.
  • The involvement of others in the policy change – it’s a major mistake to change any policies in isolation. Policies developed in isolation will likely face more opposition and confusion. So be sure and include some influential employees and managers in your research and policy development. And when you operate with unions, they must also be consulted.
  • Get this balance perfect – it’s essential that you effectively handle the delicate balance between encouraging employees to come in or stay away. This is the single most important area. If your missing work policies are too harsh, infected and, sick workers will end up coming to work when they shouldn’t. And if your policy is too lax, many more employees will take advantage of your loopholes and unnecessarily avoid work. So an effective policy will both simultaneously encourage good behaviors and discourage negative sick leave behaviors. 
  • The definition of “a sick day” – you must clearly define and communicate “what is a sick day.” For example, an employee staying away under a required quarantine order will know if they are considered to be “sick?” So to minimize employee and manager confusion, you must clearly define and communicate to everyone what counts as a sick day (where you can miss work without repercussions) and what does not. This must include whether an employee can use “a sick day” when they are not sick themselves, but they need to care for a family member. And for remote workers, you may need to allow for “partial sick days,” for when they only feel well enough to work half of the day.
  • Increasing the number of total sick days – in most cases, you will need to increase the total number of available “sick days.” Covid is now much more pervasive and contagious. At least for the next year, you will need to seriously consider dramatically increasing the number of allowed paid “sick days” available to your employees. And in some cases, there should be no limit if they get the proper approvals. If you don’t allow enough, you will likely force hourly workers to come in when they shouldn’t because they can’t afford to lose the income.
  • Limit using vacation time for sick days – it’s important to avoid forcing your employees to use vacation days for sickness-related absences. When your sick leave policies are too strict, or the allowed days are too limited. You will be forced to use their vacation days for what should have actually been designated as “sick days.” This reduced vacation time may increase employee stress and even spur some to quit. For these reasons, it’s often a mistake to combine sick and vacation into a single PTO allotment.
  • The reporting and tracking of sick days – make it as easy as possible to report and track sick days to minimize manager and HR time. This is especially difficult with so many remote workers because it is challenging for a manager to determine when someone is “out sick.” Also, the number of total reported employee sick days is likely to increase dramatically. Your system for reporting and tracking sick day usage will likely need the addition of technology. 
  • Localization of your policy – because the usage rate and the applicable federal, state, and local laws will likely vary widely by region and country. So to minimize local issues, a flexible “one-size-fits-all one” policy will be needed at most companies.
  • Define when an employee is disciplined – in some cases, employees will go over the line and break your sick leave policy. So it’s essential that you clarify to both your employees and managers which behaviors will result in disciplinary action and which positive health actions will be actively nudged, encouraged, and rewarded. The penalties for abusing sick leave will also have to be specified. 
  • Shifting to a data-driven process – everyone must realize that the sick leave issue is too complex to be managed by past practices and intuition. As a result, every area of your new sick leave process must be developed and operated using a data-driven model.
  • Metrics are required – because of the many consequences of ineffective sick leave policies. Extensive analytics will be needed to cover each of your major program goals, including your overall program effectiveness, and identify how your policy improves workforce productivity, retention, and recruitment. Your system must also track any changes in the percentage of your employees that get the virus at work. Finally, your metrics must quickly identify any managers with sick leave issues and any individual employees that are abusing your process or policy.
  • Avoiding any negative impact on diversity – because the most impacted workers are likely to be those that work in hourly jobs that many diverse employees populate. HR must be vigilant to avoid any negative diversity impact.
  • Update related policies – updating sick leave alone won’t likely be enough. In most cases, you will also have to examine your policies and practices related to PTO, vacation, family leave, disability leave, permission to work at home, holidays, and bereavement leave (even when most can’t attend services).
  • Someone must be in charge – because of the complexity of the issue and the ever-changing nature of Covid. One individual must be accountable for the entire sick leave policy and its results.

Final Thoughts

All of your executives must realize that the time when you can allow a typical benefits administrator to operate your sick leave process in isolation has long passed. Now realize that Covid has numerous costly safety, productivity, staffing levels, recruiting, and retention impacts. The costs are so high that updating and modernizing your sick leave approach must be immediately elevated to the executive level!

Author’s Note 

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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