By Glen Parkinson, SME Director for AXA PPP healthcare

Staff absence can be a strain on SMEs. Whether it’s enforced through sick leave or much anticipated annual leave, for businesses with limited manpower, being a person down can create various problems. In 2013, 131 million days were lost to sickness absence in the UK, equating to 4.4 days per worker. When you add this to the 28 days paid annual leave, to which every full-time employee is entitled, employers are faced with each employee on average, being out of the workplace for a month of each year.

This view may seem a little dramatic but putting everything in perspective helps the planning process. Preparation for staff absence – enforced or otherwise – enables businesses to be agile and respond accordingly. The tips below are ways in which SMEs can ensure minimal disruption when they are faced with the prospect of staff time off.

1. Handover is handy

A thorough handover really is worth its weight in gold as it saves time searching for answers. If an employee is going on holiday, make sure tasks are assigned to other ‘owners’ for the duration of the leave and have a designated email checker to make sure nothing falls through the net whilst they’re off.

If the absence is due to sickness, if possible, ask the employee about any tasks which need to be completed ASAP. This should help to minimise any initial disruption and prevent dropping any spinning plates as well as reducing stress on the absent employee. If the absence is longer than one or two days, try to go through the employee’s to-do list, highlighting any tasks which need actioning to see if they can be reallocated within the team. You don’t want an employee rushing back when they’re not ready, so work with them to ensure they don’t come back to an overflowing in-tray or feel like you can’t cope without them.

2. Contingency plan

For any business, especially small ones, expertise is an attribute as it sets you apart. However, this in itself can bring problems as, if only one person knows how to operate a system or programme, a business can suddenly grind to a halt. Therefore, businesses need a contingency plan to ensure this doesn’t happen. If possible, have two or three people at least who can deputise in the case of absence and manage during holiday to ensure a seamless handover. To safeguard against holiday clashes, ensure these people do not take holiday simultaneously to minimise the chances of no one being around.

3. Check employee stress levels

This is best practice, regardless of whether there are any stress related absences, as it could be a reason for sick leave. Ask your employees how they’re feeling and ascertain what pressures they are under both at work and personally. Having an acute understanding of workload and how employees are feeling makes it easier to allocate work in the case of absence or prevent it in the first place by trying to remove some pressures an employee may be facing. This could include measures such as flexible working to avoid a stressful commute or accommodating family commitments. Providing employees with access to confidential counselling (through an employee assistance programme, for example) can be an invaluable support for enabling employees to deal more effectively with the pressures in their lives. Providing early access to specialist medical care though health insurance is another powerful tool employers can use to support their workforce through difficult times.

4. Don’t sacrifice staff wellbeing to cover the workload

When you are an employee down, the work still has to be done. However, don’t pass the expectation down to other team members that they need to make up the other employee’s hours. Do what you can to discourage overtime and encourage staff to leave their desks for lunch. Taking a break is better for productivity and working smarter, not longer, can help to cover the workload during the absence.

5. Say thank you

If team members have stepped up and taken on increased workload during holiday or sickness absence, a good way reassure and to motivate them is simply to say thank you. Acknowledging the work they have done spreads goodwill and small rewards, such as buying the team lunch, can have a positive impact on team spirit, making them more productive in the long run.

Staff absence is unavoidable and every business needs to face up to the fact that employees can’t work every day of the year. Reducing absence by just 1 per cent will produce an extra 1.3 million days of work in the UK. The good news is that a little forward planning can help minimise disruption to business and help employees return to work feeling rested and ready for the work that needs to be done.