11.08.2009 Good sickness-absence practice will keep companies healthy through pandemic

Employers who manage sickness absence consistently "have nothing to fear" from emergency plans to allow staff to self-certify sick leave for up to two weeks in response to the swine flu pandemic, according to the CIPD.
Senior public policy adviser Ben Willmott said that the government's contingency plans for certifying sick leave would be a "common-sense and pragmatic" response to an escalation in the flu pandemic. "The plans have been designed to help prevent the spread of infection and reduce the workload on healthcare professionals during what would be a very challenging time. It seems a proportionate response," he said.
The plans, which would allow people with suspected swine flu to extend the amount of time they can take off work without a doctor's note from seven to 14 days, are currently under review by the Cabinet Office and would be enacted for a limited period of time, most likely six months, if the number of cases in the UK rose dramatically.
Willmott said the proposals would not create any problems for employers who already managed sickness absence well, adding that it "will only be a small proportion of employees that would seek to take advantage of these changes".
"When you are managing absence there is a fine line between providing support to people who have genuine health problems and taking consistent action against the small proportion that are taking advantage of occupational sick pay schemes. That does not change regardless of changes to self-certify rules," he added.
A spokesperson from the Department for work and pensions said the decision to extend self certification was being monitored by the Civil Contingencies Committee and "such measures would only be implemented if absolutely needed".
"We don't want people to feel obliged to leave the home or return to work when they are still unwell or put an unnecessary burden on GPs in a pandemic," added the spokesperson. The plans were developed in 2007 in consultation with employer groups.
The chief medical officer for England, Sir Liam Donaldson, said at the weekend that cases of swine flu were reaching endemic levels in London and the West Midlands. This followed the first death in the UK of someone who had no other underlying health problems. Health minister Andy Burnham also warned earlier in the month that swine flu was spreading so rapidly across Britain there could be 100,000 new cases a day by the end of August.
Lyndon Bird, technical services director of the Business Continuity Institute, said recent stories in the media about swine flu had been "a wide awakening" for employers, many of whom were now beginning to understand the need for emergency planning. But he warned many firms would still be unable to cope.
"They are not prepared for the numbers that might happen. Lots of organisations have business continuity plans but they have not been stress tested," he said. But he added there was still time for businesses to get their plans into shape, urging them to focus particularly on technical infrastructure and communications. He also advised firms to prepare for high levels of employee absence through "cross-functional training" so that healthy staff could be redeployed to key business areas.
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