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Managing absenteeism and medical incapacity during a pandemic

by Anton Engelbrecht, Alexander Forbes Health Management Solutions

Employers need to formulate new strategies to manage employee productivity as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown regulations.

Scientists are still studying the effects of the coronavirus in the medium to long term, and therefore have not yet established the associated risk of its functional impact on work output.

Alexander Forbes Health Management Solutions managed a recent case where, eight weeks after testing positive for Covid-19, an employee could still only work for two to three hours a day due to headaches and fatigue. This had a significant impact on their productivity despite being declared fit for duty.

By definition, a pandemic has catastrophic effects on individuals, employers, businesses, industries, the economy, the country and the world at large. The insurance industry model is based on assessing risk and providing relief for the insured when the insurable event occurs, and pandemics are shown to occur every 30 to 40 years. Inevitably there is a financial cost to any pandemic. With the expected increase in job loss, historically this is often associated with an increase in claims.

Most employers offer group risk benefits to their employees that include disability benefits and death or funeral cover. With the increase in Covid-19 deaths, the immediate impact on the employer and insurer is an increase in funeral or death cover claims and therefore higher premiums. Group risk benefits and premiums are reviewed every year. For an employer with group cover it could result in higher premiums at the time of review. Historical data indicates that the aftermath of any pandemic is often an increase in risk cover, and with most disability benefits having a waiting period of up to six months, insurers are yet to feel the impact of these claims.

Employees with chronic medical conditions can function optimally with access to chronic disease management programmes. Owing to the pandemic, some of these employees may no longer have access to their healthcare providers, required medication or both. This has a spiral impact on managing their medical condition and resultant functional impact on their work output. These previously medically stable employees could become incapacitated.

Employers can better manage absenteeism, incapacity and disability during a pandemic by doing the following:

  • Maintain regular contact with your employees through team meetings and virtual social gatherings with the aim of supporting each employee.
  • Have a risk management strategy and communicate the procedure for a Covid-19 diagnosis. Who should the employee tell? What will happen once a medical certificate is submitted? Should they expect a call from a service provider? Is the information on next of kin or family readily available?
  • Provide mental health support through existing employer-sponsored employee assistance programmes or available national mental health structures.
  • Notify the insurer after 14 days if an employee has used all their available sick leave, as underlying conditions are likely to manifest due to stress, medication shortages, poor ergonomics while working from home and possibly sub-optimal chronic disease management during the pandemic.
  • Develop an outcomes-based model of evaluating work performance – turning up for work is no longer an indication of performance. This approach, however, can also increase mental stress and therefore must be accompanied by mental support strategies.
  • Mitigate the risks of musculoskeletal injuries by promoting correct set-up of laptops, stands and chairs when working from home as well as ergonomic evaluations, allowing employees to collect chairs or stands from the office.
  • Pay attention to employees with underlying medical conditions – this is the point when employees will be more likely to diagnose any underlying conditions. This information is identified as vital for health risk management strategies that could be beneficial in the future.
  • Develop a workflow process for each employee in the event of a positive Covid-19 diagnosis.
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