“We have not seen absences of this level since the start of the pandemic”

OT  looks into the ongoing challenges posed by COVID-19 absences, and how employers are approaching support

Pexels/Polina Tankilevitch

It seems COVID-19 continues to cast a long shadow over optometry practices, bearing operational and emotional challenges, with employee absences one area of concern.

Across the UK, the legal requirement for members of the public to self-isolate with symptoms of the virus came to an end over the past few months.

The legal requirement was rolled back in England in February as the Government implemented its’ ‘Living with COVID-19’ plan. In March, Wales removed its self-isolation rules, and the end of April saw guidance relaxed for people in Scotland. Self-isolation guidance in Northern Ireland was confirmed to not be a legal requirement.

While no longer legally required, those who test positive for COVID-19 are still being advised to stay home.

The effects of the change

During the pandemic, measures were introduced to provide sick pay for individuals confirmed to have COVID-19 from the first day of absence, easing some of the pressures facing those who contracted the virus and could not go into work.

With the legal requirement to isolate at an end, Statutory Sick Pay has reverted to normal, with payment from the fourth day of absence.

Concerns following the announcement highlighted the impact the change could potentially have on employees at a time when finances are increasingly squeezed.

The numbers of people contracting the virus had been rising in the first quarter of the year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested, estimating that one in 13 people across the UK were thought to have contracted COVID-19 in the week ending 2 April. However, the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 has since been decreasing across the UK.

Recent estimates by the organisation suggest that 1.5m people in England had COVID-19 in the week ending 30 April – equating to 2.91% of the population or 1 in 35 people.

Earlier this year, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) highlighted the pressure COVID-19 absence places on employers. 

Responding to ONS figures that revealed 149.4 million working days were lost in the UK last year due to sickness or injury – with COVID-19 accounting for nearly one in four absences –the organisation called for a small business rebate.

Keeping staff safe

Managing partner at Haine & Smith, Angela Davey, told OT that the last few months have been particularly hard for the business: “We have not seen absences of this level since the start of the pandemic and it has affected cover in our practices. In turn, we have had to cancel many clinics, which is not what we want to do.”

The business has been following all professional guidelines and listening to employees to keep staff and patients safe. Discussing the approach to absences and sickness pay, Davey explained: “If any staff member is diagnosed with COVID-19, full sick pay for up to 10 days is offered.”

In addition, the business uses an Employee Assist Programme for further support.

“Many members of our staff have already used its counselling service to help with COVID-19-related anxiety,” Davey said.

Support doesn’t stop with employee sickness, Davey emphasised, adding: “we understand that schools can close with very little notice and children become unwell, so we are flexible with requests to take time to cover these times.”

“We also have a number of staff suffering from long COVID-19, and the absence and return to work is managed with compassion and flexibility,” Davey shared.

Employees experiencing long COVID-19 can choose to have an occupational health assessment or work with HR to develop a plan to enable a safe return.

Holistic support

Liz Isles, employee relations manager at Specsavers, also highlighted the importance of supporting employee’s wellbeing at a holistic level, telling OT: “We want to promote a positive working environment for all colleagues in these challenging times.”

Employees are provided with regular updates on the latest guidance, with information available through internal intranet resources and HR advice tailored to individuals, while retail and clinical teams can support with operational and clinical advice for resourcing challenges.

“We want to support colleagues’ rest and recovery,” Isles said. “Advice from the HR team is that all employees receive full pay for COVID-19-related sickness from day one of the absence. Many of our stores and businesses have adopted this practice.”

Where this is not possible, practices are encouraged to replicate the Statutory Sick Pay COVID-19 extension provisions.

Isles commented: “Our emphasis is on ensuring that colleagues are not placed at a financial disadvantage for taking COVID-19-related sickness absence.”

Employees are trained to be multi-skilled to support in more areas, which helps to ease operational challenges where a member of the team is on sickness leave, Davey said, and managers are encouraged to be flexible with working patterns, such as re-allocating shifts, annual leave and non-working days.

Colleagues also have access to an Employee Assistance Programme, along with the Specsavers’ subscription to the mindfulness app, Headspace. Davey suggests these aim to help “support with the impact of COVID-19 on finances, relationships and wellbeing in general.”

As guidance on COVID-19 requirements changes, Isles emphasised: “We must remember that, as a healthcare provider, we need to maintain our standards on infection prevention control to keep ourselves, our colleagues and our customers safe.”

If you would like to share your experiences of practicing through the challenges of COVID-19, get in touch with the team at [email protected]