Experts predict a perfect storm for levels of absenteeism rocketing this winter not just down to rising levels of coronavirus and Long Covid. Leading microbiologists are also predicting a harsh flu season, partly down to very low levels of flu transmission in 2020. Couple that with cases of anxiety and depression brought on by the pandemic and it’s highly likely that absenteeism will soar as we head into winter.
For businesses that have felt the pressure and pinned hopes on a return to normal office working, it could be a very difficult winter, with much higher-than-average numbers of staff off sick.
Here Dr D. L. Webber, a microbiologist with over 50 years’ experience, and Steve Whittall, Group Research and Development Director at Airdri, a leading supplier of air sanitisation technology outline some steps that businesses could take to reduce levels of absence this winter.
We also spoke to employers about the measures they have in place to help combat absenteeism in 2021.
Focus on Workplace Air Quality
Dr Webber begins:
“Buildings play a critical role in reducing, or conversely exacerbating, the spread of airborne infectious diseases.”
“Building-related interventions have been shown to reduce the spread of many other airborne infectious diseases, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), tuberculosis, measles, and crucially, influenza.
“Enhanced outdoor air ventilation has been recorded to reduce influenza and tuberculosis transmission in hospitals and school buildings. Upper-room ultraviolet (UV) germicidal irradiation also substantially reduced the spread of measles in a school during an epidemic. It is becoming apparent that ventilation and potentially air cleaning, are key components of risk reduction strategies for airborne infectious diseases (including COVID-19).”
Steve Whittall of Airdri added:
“Current ventilation and air cleaning standards were designed for comfort, controlling temperature, pollutants, and odours. They are not fit for purpose when it comes to preventing airborne infectious disease transmission.
“As a result, most buildings are not designed in a manner that supports the rapid removal of infectious respiratory viruses. The Government advice during the pandemic focused on opening windows to allow fresh air to circulate, but as we head into the colder months this is neither practical nor desirable.
“Portable air cleaners with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration have been suggested as a solution. Where this technology can significantly increase the clean air supply, all the air in the room must pass through the filter for it to be purified; some viruses are so small they flow straight through the filters and escape back into the air.”
“Another solution would be the installation of air sanitisation units such as the SteraSpace range from Airdri, which effectively remove viruses, bacteria, mould, fungi and odours by combining three technologies to emit a stream of disinfecting plasma into the air.”
Reducing the numbers of ‘working unwell’
Presenteeism is defined as the ‘act of showing up to work without being productive’ and it is endemic in UK workplace culture. A recent study found:
•More than half of ‘deskless’ workers have gone into work while unwell because they could not afford to take time off
•A survey of 1,500 people found that over half (55%) had struggled into work unwell
In the case of illness, encouraging staff to attend work when feeling ill, even if not intentional, is actually likely to escalate rates of absence, as explained by Steve Whittall: “Pre-pandemic there was a prevailing ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude to attending work when sick in many workplaces. Employees would feel duty bound to come into the workplace when they weren’t feeling 100%, whether for financial reasons or because of a cultural ideology that frowns upon taking time off.
“It’s a false economy, that working unwell will likely pass the illness around the workplace, resulting in more sick days for the entire team. If companies really want to reduce the number of days lost through staff sickness, attitudes to presenteeism need to change.”
Air and Surface Cleaning Technology
As the country steps out of coronavirus restrictions, and employees move from working from home, back to the office, the dreaded common cold and flu viruses will be out in force with everyone mingling in unventilated workspaces. Many Brits have escaped the flu season this last year due to self-isolation and minimal mixing, however come the winter, sickness and absenteeism will surely rise again.
Lauren McCabe from Airdri (www.airdri.com), explains how an innovative piece of technology can help keep absences low when we return to work:
“We often think of colds and flu viruses as being something confined to one person, that if you sit next to them in the office, you’re likely to catch the lurgy too.
“But actually, when it comes to spreading bacteria it’s all about the air and surfaces. Some workplaces can be a hotbed for bacteria as they house hundreds of people, touching the same surfaces and breathing the same, stagnant air day in, day out. However, there are products that are proven to reduce the spread of infectious diseases. SteraSpace works to tackle the germs and bacteria in the air by continuously emitting a plasma, which sanitises the air in workspaces and cleanses the surfaces it falls onto.
“The SteraSpace technology was used in an NHS call centre, which sees colleagues come through the door 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Using the SteraSpace units resulted in absences dropping by 42%, with reports of less complaints of colds, flu, stomach bugs and breathing related illnesses. This saved the employer £213,704 in sickness cover over three months.”
When independently tested in an office environment at the headquarters of Service Electrical Distributors Ltd there was found to be a 78% reduction in bacteria after only two weeks of operating the SteraSpace unit.
Marc Redfern at Service Electrical Distributors Ltd. said:
“I was extremely impressed with the results and will be recommending it to my customers for their own offices. I think everybody should have one, especially working in the times we are.”
Focus on mental health support systems.
Adam Bennett from Digital ID (www.digitalid.co.uk), Experts in ID Card Printing & Access Control, talks about how introducing Mental Health First Aiders has helped reduce absences across the business:
“Mental health initiatives have risen drastically in the past five years, but it’s this year more than ever when we’ve really needed them – and not just cupcakes on Blue Monday, but real, hands-on practices in place to help support our colleagues through these incredibly difficult times, and beyond.
“As a company with over 100 employees, we have formed a team of Mental Health First Aiders, who are thoroughly trained in how to support colleagues who may be struggling, how to recognise the signs and what to do in a mental health emergency. The team offers a listening ear and acts as the main port-of-call for colleagues who need a bit of extra support. We’ve found it really helps colleagues to be more open and honest, thus reducing the number of days they phone in sick and helping us to support individuals better.”
2021 will again look very different from past years, but with these tips, correct processes in place and a few workplace initiatives, employers can help keep absences to a minimum and productivity levels will again rise back to where they were pre-pandemic.