The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is urging employers to review their absence management policies, processes and practices so that they also reflect the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on employee long-term absence.
The CIPD has published two guides to help employers effectively manage a return to work for employees, which also include the key considerations for managing employees suffering from post-COVID syndrome, or long COVID.
Partnering with Bupa and developed in collaboration with occupational health psychology consultancy Affinity Health at Work, the first guide is aimed at HR professionals while the second is designed to support line managers.
The collaborators on the guide note that employees are more likely to remain in employment and to be productive after a long-term sickness absence – defined as four weeks or more of continuous absence – if they are well supported during their time off work and after they return to the workplace.
The two guides include the ‘IGLOo framework for sustainable return to work’, a model which outlines the key roles and responsibilities at the individual, the group, the line manager and organisational level.
The collaborators urge HR professionals to implement the IGLOo framework throughout an organisation to ensure that:
- individuals returning to work are able to prioritise self-care and have the skills and resources to self-manage their work and health
- groups working with the returning employee know what they can do to support them and feel confident in doing so
- line managers have the knowledge, skills and confidence to implement the policies and practices and behave in a way that will support returning employees effectively
- organisational policies and practices are designed and implemented in a way that fully supports returning employees and are flexible to accommodate the needs of those with fluctuating conditions.
‘The model spells out the different roles and gives people confidence that they don’t need to take responsibility for return to work support on their own,’ said Dr Jo Yarker, director at Affinity Health at Work, who helped to develop the IGLOo framework with Dr Karina Neilsen at Sheffield University.
‘That’s the most important feedback that we’ve had from those who are using IGLOo. Individuals who have been off work can say, “I need to be accountable and do some work here (for example, making sure I attend therapy, staying in a good sleep routine or learning how to ask for help) but also this is what I could look for and ask for from my colleagues, line managers and the system”. At the same time, line managers can see that they are part of the equation but don’t have to take everything on.’
According to CIPD’s 2021 Health and Wellbeing at Work report, the most prevalent conditions responsible for long-term absence are mental ill health, musculoskeletal disorders, stress and acute medical conditions.
In 2020, 118.6 million working days were lost due to sickness or injury and nearly 560,000 workers suffered a new case of ill health, which they believed to be caused or made worse by their work, notes the CIPD.
‘There is a whole array of symptoms, including cardio, respiratory, musculoskeletal pain and psychological symptoms, often co-existing and fluctuating'
According to the Health and Safety Executive, 16,400 workers permanently withdraw from the labour market each year due to a workplace injury or work-related ill health. Many report that they would have remained with their employer had they received better support.
However, the guides note that the pandemic has had a significant impact on absence management, not least in the emergence of long COVID.
‘Some people were hospitalised and had an extreme experience, while others had a more mild COVID experience but their symptoms have persisted and they are now dealing with long COVID symptoms,’ said Dr Yarker.
‘There is a whole array of symptoms, including cardio, respiratory, musculoskeletal pain and psychological symptoms, often co-existing and fluctuating. This makes it difficult for healthcare professionals and those experiencing them.
‘But there are a lot of people who are at home and the symptoms have been really pervasive. They are now unable to do the normal things they used to be able to do such as walk down the road, lift shopping or sit at their computer for long periods of time.’
NICE defines the syndrome as ‘signs and symptoms that develop during or following an infection consistent with COVID-19 which continue for more than 12 weeks and are not explained by an alternative diagnosis’.
As the collaborators note, the pandemic presents an opportunity to revise absence management policies and practices so that they reflect the ‘more compassionate, inclusive and flexible ethos of today’s workplaces’.
Although many more employees with long-term and chronic conditions are now able to stay in work compared with five years ago, the collaborators add that many with fluctuating and chronic conditions struggle to return to and stay in work.
According to Dr Yarker, a number of employees are coming up to the end of their time on sick leave and a more compassionate approach and a clear plan from employers is critical if we are going to help these people stay in work.
'The pandemic presents an opportunity to revise absence management policies and practices so that they reflect the ‘more compassionate, inclusive and flexible ethos of today’s workplaces'
‘The challenge for these organisations is, how do we support these people back into work and particularly when we know their symptoms are fluctuating? It’s common for individuals to be fine for two days and then the next day they can back to square one.
‘The symptoms fluctuate in the same way that symptoms fluctuate for many chronic conditions, such as mental ill-health, chronic fatigue or asthma. Unfortunately, the truth is that many employers really struggle to help people manage chronic conditions in the workplace, or the need to, is not even on their radar.’
That’s why the guides encourage employers to refresh and update their policies, processes and practices to ensure they are better placed to manage these chronic conditions.
‘Many absence management policies will have a trigger point that if you have been late or you are absent for “x” many days in a quarter, you need to have a conversation and then that is escalated to HR,’ continued Dr Yarker.
‘But if you have a chronic condition, that gives you no wriggle room to be ill with anything else and it doesn’t give you the flexibility to manage your condition in a way that allows you to manage your work and health effectively.’
One of the key takeaways from the two guides is that support needs to start long before an employee develops a chronic condition that forces them to leave the workplace.
That means having the structures in place to welcome the employee back and to keep them supported once they are there but also the knowledge that the employer will stay connected with them while they are off so that they feel valued when they are absent.
‘If the good structures are in place, and the good relationships are there, that employee is likely to feel more inclined to come back to work, so it all starts with what the workplace looks like before they are even unwell,’ added Dr Yarker.