By Max Clarke

The first two of weeks of January 2011 have been the busiest time for employees to call in sick, says the Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals (CIPP).

Latest figures from the Health Protection Agency show levels of seasonal flu may be starting to peak in England, Wales and Scotland. Furthermore, it was reported that close to two million employees were off work each day last week.

Other research also shows that the month of January has the the highest number of sickness absences. A 2009 survey revealed that 13 of the 20 most popular days for sickness absence occurred in January 2008 and six of these were taken between 2 and 9 January. On 3 and 4 January 2008, nearly 5 percent of the total UK employee population was absent on sick leave.

The CIPP advises businesses to have a contingency plan in place to cope with the seasonal surge of the flu and prepare for a worst case scenario. Sick days are a headache for the payroll department because they have the responsibility of covering the salaries of absent employees, paying overtime and providing the wages for temporary cover.

Lindsay Melvin, Chief Executive of the CIPP, said: “With so many employees potentially calling in sick this month, it is important that payroll staff plan for the worst in case a significant number of their organisation’s workforce becomes ill.

“Part of the strategy should include reviewing your existing sick pay policies and evaluating whether you need to recommend revising these to accommodate any flu pandemic. For example, look at what guidelines are in place with regard to sick-leave absences around when a person is allowed to return to work, and infection control rules for staff who are ill at work.

“It is also worth looking into allowing employees to work from home if they start feeling like they are coming down with flu-like symptoms or if they have to stay at home to take care of sick relatives. Providing flexible working options will help prevent other staff members catching the flu from their poorly colleagues as well as possibly enhancing work productivity and minimising the expense incurred by absent employees.