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Has home-working made it harder to take sick leave?

 Anne Sammon tells HRNews about the difference between flexible working and hybrid working practices

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  • Transcript

    Remote working has made it easier to power through illness rather than rest, but could this be at a cost to health, wellbeing and productivity? It’s a question asked by the FT in an interesting piece that features comment from our own Anne Sammon. 

    In ‘The end of sick days: has WFH made it harder to take time off?’ Anne tells the FT why this is an important issue for employers and how we’ve seen increasing numbers of inquiries from clients worried about employees’ digital presenteeism. She says: ‘They want to set the right tone over expectations. The challenge from an employer’s perspective is how to strike the balance. What you want managers to say is ‘use your common sense’ but that doesn’t give people clarity.’

    As the FT reports, the data are still emerging on the effect of widespread remote working on sick days. Last year in the UK, the ONS reported a record low in the number of days people were absent from work. Research by the CIPD has found the overwhelming majority of respondents - 84% - had observed “presenteeism” in their workplace, the term used to describe people who continue to work when they are ill.

    On that issue an interesting observation is made by occupational health psychologist Maria Karanika-Murray. She says the word ‘presenteeism’ may be too blunt a term to be useful. She suggests seeing it as a continuum of behaviour from, at one end of the scale, restorative, helping a worker to keep in touch with colleagues, providing some stimulation to, at the other end, dysfunctional, hampering both health and performance. She says there’s a difference between ‘functional presenteeism’ and behaviour that is harmful. She makes a case for challenging the assumption that it is always negative. She links that to the new world of flexible and hybrid working. So, in an ideal world, if there are enough options for flexible work, we might not need sick leave. It will all be about adjustments’, she says. 
    Those ‘options for flexible work’ are most obviously flexible and hybrid working arrangements. So, in this context it means reviewing flexible and hybrid working policies and practices with an eye on employee’s work-life balance, their wellbeing and their productivity, which are, of course, inter-connected. To that end it is very important for managers to appreciate that flexible working and hybrid working are actually very different concepts as Anne Sammon told me on a video-link call earlier:

    Anne Sammon: “Hybrid working is all about employers having flexibility and saying to employees we want you to work perhaps a minimum of this number of days in the office, or we're happy for you to work this number of days at home, and allowing a lot of flexibility whereas a flexible working request is a statutory right, although some employers will have extended the statutory right beyond just what the limits of the statute says, but a flexible working request is something that is almost set in stone, doesn't change, is forevermore and tends to be written very particularly from a legal perspective. So, it tends to be things like, you have the right to work from home on a Wednesday, or a Thursday, whatever day it is. Contrast that to a flexible working policy, or a right to work from a hybrid perspective, and that will say something like you can work two days a week from home, so that they're very different and they have very different consequences.”

    Joe Glavina: “So will it mean that contracts of employment will need changing to reflect the new working arrangements?”  

    Anne Sammon: “So I think it all depends on what your employment contract wording already says. Many employment contracts that we've been looking at have got almost a built-in flexibility in terms of location of work. So, they will say things like your place of work is the company's offices, or such other locations as the company made determine as appropriate from time to time and with that type of flexibility the company can say, well, you can work from home. If you've got a very definite instruction that you must work from the company's offices that’s where you need to start thinking about whether there's a requirement to make a contractual change. Now, one of the things with hybrid working, what we've seen from a lot of clients, is that they want to have a kind of let's try it and see approach rather than embedding this forevermore so many organisations are thinking, well, at the moment we're happy for people to work maybe two days a week from home, but we don't know what the situation might be in a year, in five years, nobody can really predict where we're going with the pandemic and therefore they want that flexibility to be able to change it on a more ad hoc basis and if you build that into the contract, and say, you can work from home two days a week, in order to then change that, that's a contractual change with all the implications that come alongside that. So what we've tended to see is many employers wanting to stay away from hybrid working being a contractual policy so that they can at least argue that if in the future they need to change it and say, actually, this isn't working, we don't think there's the kind of levels of collaboration, for example, that we're expecting, and therefore we want you all to be in the office four days a week, instead of the three days a week, there's that ability to do that.”

    Joe Glavina: “So what’s your key message to HR, Anne?”

    Anne Sammon: “I think the key thing that I see as being the difference is that hybrid working is all about giving the organisation and the individual flexibility whereas flexible working, rather conversely, tends to be about giving the individuals and the organisation certainty. So if you think about them in those two different ways, hybrid working will allow you to give direction as to working in a particular pattern, for example the two days a week from the office, whereas flexible working requests tend to be more around I want to do this particular thing forevermore and these are the particular hours and days that I want to be set out in stone. I think what we are seeing at the moment is a lot of clients where they've implemented hybrid working policies and employees, because of childcare reasons for example, want certainty. So if you're an employer and you've said everyone can work from home two days a week, and you're an employee and you need to work from home on, say, a Monday and a Friday, that hybrid working policy doesn't necessarily get you what you want and so then you might put in a flexible working request and say, yes, I'm happy to work two days a week from home but I want those days to be Monday and Friday and I don't want them to ever change.”

    Back in September the CIPD published guidance for employers on how to plan and manage a move to hybrid working which may be of interest if you are at that stage. We have put a link to it in the transcript of this programme.

    - Link to CIPD’s guidance on planning for hybrid working

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