Staff absence: How to deal with the ‘new normal’

Gemma Chapman
Human Resources
Covid testing stock image

The removal of Covid rules means that employers are now having to make their own decisions when it comes to staff absence, says Gemma Chapman of Lovewell Blake. A robust policy and consistency of approach are key.

Covid testing stock image

For almost two years, employers didn’t have to make decisions when it came to staff who had – or showed symptoms of – Covid.  Strict rules were laid down by government, with isolation periods and testing rules giving employers little room for manoeuvre.

But now that almost all Covid restrictions have been lifted, does that mean that the problem has gone away?  Obviously not, and many employers are now wrestling with the tricky task of striking a balance between keeping their businesses going and ensuring the safety of their staff and customers.

Covid is now officially viewed in the same way as any other respiratory condition: staff should remain off work if they are suffering from symptoms which make them too ill to come to work or to undertake that work safely.

For employers, this means something of a limbo situation.  Clearly you can’t tell staff to stay away from work for every sniffle, especially as Statutory Sick Pay (already one of the least generous in Europe) is once again, only payable from the fourth day of sickness.

For those employers who don’t pay full sickness pay, it is difficult to tell a member of staff not to come to work unless they are demonstrably unwell, unable to do their work safely, or putting other people at risk. 

Deciding where to draw that line is a tricky task.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the workforce is polarised, between those who want to leave the pandemic behind and get on with life (‘learning to live’ with Covid), and those who continue to be anxious about the disease, either because they have underlying health conditions, someone in their family is vulnerable, or just that the last two years have caused them genuine fear.

For this latter group, engagement is vital.  You can’t simply ignore their concerns and tell them that they should be coming in to work.  For a start, if they are clinically vulnerable, you have an obligation to support them, and that duty of care applies equally if they are suffering from a genuine anxiety.  Only once you have satisfied those obligations should you start thinking about going down the disciplinary route on the grounds of unauthorised absence.

But those who are perhaps too blasé about the risks of Covid also need to be managed.  Whilst there is no longer a need for days of isolation for asymptomatic people (nor indeed any compulsion to test at all), employees must be able to function safely at work, and that is particularly important where they might be operating machinery, for example.

If they are able to function safely, and determined to come to work, unless an employer is prepared to pay them full salary while they are not there, it will be difficult to prevent them from coming in.

All of this means that following government guidance on mitigation measures such as providing good ventilation and social distancing where possible is vital, both to fulfil the employer’s duty to keep their staff safe, and to ensure that illness and absence doesn’t bring the whole business grinding to a halt.

The most important thing is to have a robust absence policy, and to apply it absolutely consistently across the board.  Alongside that, it is best practice to engage with staff so that they understand how they should behave if they feel ill, what support you will give them, and their responsibility to their colleagues – both in terms of avoiding passing on illness to them, but also ensuring that staff do not burn out covering for absent employees who should really be in work.

As ever, the collaborative approach is best, alongside that consistent policy.  Have conversations with staff about their genuine concerns, encourage them to be vigilant about symptoms, foster a culture of respect for colleagues, and balance your reasonable expectation that your employees should be at work if they can with demonstrable support for them during this period of uncertainty and readjustment to the new normal.

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