As of April 5, mothers and fathers of newly-born babies have the right to share their maternity and paternity leave. This parental leave measure is one we’ve outlined before, but it poses a potential problem for many small businesses, which can find it hard to cover staff absence at the best of times. Whether it’s employees taking time off due to illness, parental leave, or even work sabbaticals, smaller companies with limited resources, and reduced workforces really feel the effect when key people are away for a prolonged period of time. So, how can SMEs bridge the gap of a missing member of staff, and is it possible to plan ahead effectively for employee absence?
The mother of all problems
Some business owners complain about women taking up to a year off after they’ve had a baby, but now they face the prospect of coping without fathers, too. But, in both instances, planning ahead can minimise the disruption to a business, and it’s sensible to start the handover process from the moment you hear about the pregnancy. The last thing you want to happen is for the baby to arrive, or to be born early, and there’s no replacement or contingency plan in place.
- Encourage the staff member to write down all of their responsibilities so you can see clearly what functions need to be covered, and which workers may have the capacity to take on particular roles. If you’re planning on using existing manpower, include other employees in any decisions about work allocation to avoid creating resentment, and unnecessary stress.
- If you can’t manage with your current workforce, a temporary external appointment may be required. This means creating a very clear job description so someone can hit the ground running, and undertaking a swift and efficient hiring process to get the individual in place before the parent leaves. A last-minute rush is more likely to result in a bad hire, so give yourself plenty of time. A handover of several days at minimum should be part of the plan. Also consider whether the new person may need extra training, or ongoing supervision.
- Keep talking to the person who is taking time off to foster good will, and to maintain clear lines of communication once the baby arrives. There are also ten statutory Keeping In Touch (KIT) days after the birth, on which the employee can return to work, or engage in training or work-related events.
In sickness and in health
When an employee is off sick for a long stint or takes time off due to ill health on repeated occasions, it can be particularly hard for a business to manage. The smaller the business, the bigger the hole created, and absence isn’t always easy to predict. However, the good news is that evidence suggests people working for SMEs are less likely to take time off.
- Micro-businesses with fewer than ten members of staff report an average of 5.3 sick days per employee per year, according to research from insurer Axa PPP, costing an average of £3,500 a year.
- This increases to 6.8 days per staff member for organisations with between 100 and 250 employees. The cost of sickness absence is also greater for larger firms – about £40,500 each on average.
Having a sickness policy can prove very useful in terms of stating what the company expects of staff, how they should behave in times of ill health, and how their return to work will be managed. This document should outline:
- How employees inform the company that they’re ill. Typically, a worker should let their boss know within an hour of their usual start time if they’re not coming into work, as well as a likely return date.
- If a member of staff is off for more than seven days, they should get a Statement of Fitness for Work or ‘fit note’ from their GP.
- The need for all staff to understand the function of ‘return to work interviews’, assessing how well individuals are in order to resume their old job, plus understanding better what might have caused the illness in the first place.
- What trigger points will lead to formal action if a member of staff takes a lot of time off when the employer believes they’re not really sick? This doesn’t mean absence for hospital appointments, for example, but unexplained time away, or unjustified absence.
Longer-term illnesses require a great deal of sensitivity, as they may be serious, and involve surgery, or mental health issues. But there’s no doubting they can also put great strain on a business operation, which makes resolving them effectively all the more desirable. First, decide if you can cope without a replacement, or need to hire someone in. Next, maintain contact with the absent person to explain what sick pay they’re receiving, and any changes in the workplace. You could ask them for permission to contact their doctor to get an idea of their likely return date, and whether it would be better for them to be phased back into their usual role.
Conciliation organisation Acas has a free guide for business owners with further information about managing staff absence, including tips on monitoring time off, what to do in cases of short-term or long-term sickness, and the employer’s duty of care.
The fact remains that, whatever the reason for employee absence, it can be a hassle for many businesses. But, it’s one that they must address properly, or firms risk falling foul of the law. Rules on maternity and paternity rights, legislation relating to disability, and employment regulations that require employers to adopt fair procedures when seeking to dismiss a staff member due to repeated absence are quite rigid, and companies that ignore them could find themselves on the receiving end of an expensive discrimination claim.
Make sure that you know the legal position whether you seek advice from a solicitor, HR specialist, or business organisation. There are also other resources available that can provide the necessary information. The CIPD has a number of free factsheets for small business owners on maternity, paternity, and adoption leave. It also offers SMEs advice on people management via a free online tool that helps businesses through periods of change. Insurer Unum also provides a free e-book for SMEs on managing sickness absence.
People being away from the workplace may be a pain, but employee absence is also a certainty. You’re dealing with people, after all, not machines, so real life will get in the way from time to time. The most sensible companies will be those that prepare for this inevitability, have the right policies in place, and that communicate them to their employees. Being more up-front about absence is likely to create a better outcome overall, so don’t put your head in the sand, and pretend that it never happens. Act early, and decisively, and your employee should be back in the fold firing on all cylinders before you know it.
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