How to manage staff absence, when it’s NOT related to illness

Interestingly, when you type ‘staff absence’ into a search engine, all content points towards ‘sickness’.  An estimated 149.3 million working days were lost because of sickness or injury in the UK in 2021, equivalent to 4.6 days per worker (Office for National Statistics).

Whilst the majority of absences are due to illness or caring for a family member who is unwell, we can’t ignore the rise of employee absence due to other unforeseen circumstances, such as foreign travel cancellations, service closures due to adverse weather conditions or employee strikes.


The challenge

Whilst most businesses will have an Absence Management Policy and Procedure, this is often tailored towards sickness and ill health.

Given the challenges many businesses have faced over the last 2 years, owing to closure, reduced income, and a subsequent reduction in staffing levels during the Covid pandemic, what is the right protocol for dealing with absence which falls outside of the ‘usual’ staff shortage challenges due to holiday and illness; and how can we best work through them?

We usually talk about Business Continuity in terms of disaster, but if you have key deliverables and half of your team is missing, you need to have a contingency plan! With many businesses also reliant on 3rd party providers to deliver aspects of their core services, this plan could involve more than just your direct employees.

In this blog, we explore the challenges and solutions to ensuring business continuity, when all the best-laid plans, don’t go quite as expected.


So, what’s the solution?

Clearly, there won’t be a ‘one size fits all’ model, to solve this challenge, however, at Cluer HR, we can go a long way towards ensuring that you are at least somewhat prepared for it.

Follow Cluer HR’s step-by-step guide for planning ahead, to make sure you and your teams are ready – whatever the shape and size of the employee shortages that are thrown your way!


1) Build right team

To give this the focus it deserves, identify a small team who can spend a few hours thrashing through a number of scenarios and exploring a few solutions that will fit the bill.

Obviously, this will largely depend on the size of your organisation and the work you do, but it doesn’t need to take days. Remember that well known saying – ‘”failure to plan, is planning to fail”? Time spent here will no doubt be time well spent!

Set out your goals for the team:

  • Identify potential challenges
  • Explore solutions
  • Agree how to manage and communicate the process


2) Identify potential challenges

Identify and discuss potential scenarios that may lead to staff shortages. By identifying the potential challenges, you and your team will be much better prepared to identify the solutions that will work for your organisation

Example scenarios could be:

  • Ferry/Flight cancellations (where employees are stuck overseas)
  • School/local transport closures (due to soaring/plummeting temperatures)
  • Fatigue (caused by long-covid for example)
  • Pregnancy-related complications (impacting a mother or father-to-be)
  • Self-employed/Sole trader (where there is no team)


3) Explore solutions

Identify and talk through a number of varying solutions. Remember in these initial ‘idea generation’ stages, nothing is a ‘silly’ suggestion. Let your team speak freely and work through their ideas together to find what works for your business.

If you work alone, discuss this with a friend or peer, or a network contact in a similar industry or position to your own.

Not all of the examples below will be applicable for every industry or business, however, a few of these may help to get you started:

  • Remote working – an employee can continue to work remotely whilst unable to get to their normal place of work
  • Flexi-working – working hours can be staggered or unsociable to accommodate the change in circumstance
  • ‘Buddy’ system – work is shared between colleagues and/or a handover takes place if a colleague isn’t able to return when expected
  • Time in lieu – team members providing additional cover, can be rewarded with time off at a later date (in addition to existing annual leave)
  • Unpaid leave – time can be taken as annual leave, but it is unpaid
  • Extended annual leave – time can be taken as paid leave, reducing the remaining annual leave owing for that financial year
  • Increased scope with existing 3rd party supplier – it may be advantageous to increase the scope of work performed by an existing 3rd party
  • Use of agency staff – where applicable, it may be worth seeking assistance from an agency to help bridge the gap
  • 3rd party contingency – if your business is heavily reliant on 3rd parties to deliver a part or all of a service on your behalf, it’s worth asking what their contingency plan for such scenarios might be. You may even find this is a good time to investigate using a 2nd supplier to ‘share the load’.


4) Agree how to manage and communicate the process

Document the process and/or add this as an update or addendum to your existing Absence Management Policy and Procedure. This may be a simple flow diagram of the steps to follow, or you may wish to accompany a more detailed flow diagram with a lengthier policy document explaining the entire process.

This will then be added to your Employee Handbook, and communicated to your teams in the usual ways.


So, to recap…  

  • Build right team
  • Identify potential challenges
  • Explore solutions
  • Agree how to manage and communicate the process

Remember that for most of your employees, they do not want to be letting you and their colleagues down, and will be feeling the pressure to return to work as soon as possible. Whatever the circumstance, it’s not their fault this has happened – so, reassure them.

Having a policy in place to manage complications owing to unforeseen circumstances, will ensure the business does not need to hit the panic button’ when challenges arise.


How can Cluer HR help?

If you would like some help identifying and/or documenting the process changes needed to ensure your existing Absence Management Policies are up to date, please contact us at Cluer HR. We are a team of expert HR professionals and Process Managers striving to help you and your organisation achieve business excellence.

If you’d like more tips on managing absence, then take a look at our website to find out more. or read through our 6 top tips for managing staff absence and sickness in the workplace.