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In May 2020, a 45-year-old manufacturing worker collapsed at work. Days later, he was pronounced dead from COVID-19. 

Tragic cases such as these have made headlines as essential workplaces grapple with the challenge of balancing the safety of their non-remote workforces with the survival of their business. 

One of the main topics of concern is--


How do we maintain a disciplined and efficient workforce without invalidating worker needs and fears relating to COVID-19? 


After all, if that 45-year-old manufacturing worker had felt that his symptoms were a valid reason to stay home, he wouldn’t have exacerbated his illness with days or weeks of labor; he wouldn’t have exposed coworkers to the illness; his workplace would not have endured serious financial burdens, and he may not have succumbed to COVID-19. 


In light of situations like this, how can your workplace policies bend to prioritize workers’ health concerns while remaining rigid in the face of malingerers and unproductive workers?  


A good place to start is by looking at your absenteeism rates, determining the biggest cause of absenteeism in your workplace, calculating the direct and indirect costs, and coming up with ways to curb unplanned absenteeism


For most workplaces, tackling unplanned absenteeism will be the most cost-effective route because, ironically, they are the most predictable and preventable, yet also among the most costly impacts of COVID-19 within essential workplaces. Another bonus is that, by reducing unplanned absenteeism, you can propel your business forward without neglecting or minimizing employee health and safety concerns amidst the pandemic. 



Unplanned Absenteeism During COVID

Workers in essential critical infrastructure occupations had significantly increased rates of unplanned absenteeism during the initial months of COVID in the US, according to one study. Transportation, manufacturing, and healthcare workers were amongst those taking more time off work due to COVID infection, fears of COVID infection, or burnout. 



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The spike in absenteeism during COVID-19 is unsurprising given that it is a debilitating and infectious illness that has also caused a lot of mental stress and increased personal and familial responsibilities, which are 3 of the top 5 biggest causes of workplace absenteeism according to e-days:


1. Minor Illness

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Minor illnesses such as a cold are very common and costly sources of absenteeism. Sending sick employees home can help prevent the spread of these minor illnesses which can become more costly if allowed to spread throughout your workforce. 


As of today, there have been 14,046,293 coronavirus cases in the US. Clearly, "minor illness" is going to be a bigger cause of unplanned absenteeism this year than previous flu seasons. 


On the other hand, 60% of the cost of ill workers are due to presenteeism. Workers coming into work despite being sick is costing employers $150-$250 billion annually according to the Harvard Business Review. Additionally, chronic diseases, a rapidly-aging workforce and factors like stress, fatigue and depression all affect employers’ revenue.


2. Mental Health

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Stress and mental ill-health are major causes of employee absenteeism, according to the CIPD. Workers with mental health issues experience emotional and physical symptoms that contribute to absenteeism. This results in higher costs for employers. For example, workers with depression miss about 27 days of work per year compared to their peers without depression.  The per capita cost of absenteeism due to depression is $4,426.59, according to Sapien Labs. 


Mind,  a mental health charity, found that one in six workers is currently facing mental health problems. These problems are no doubt exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. 


According to the KFF, many adults are reporting the following negative impacts of COVID-19 on their mental health and wellbeing due to stress caused by the pandemic:

  • difficulty sleeping (36%)
  • difficulty eating (32%)
  • increases in alcohol consumption or substance use (12%)
  • worsening chronic conditions (12%)


Such symptoms are not only costly in their contribution to mental health absenteeism, but also potentially disastrous when brought into safety-critical workplaces, many of which are essential and non-remote. 


3. Musculoskeletal Issues

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According to OSHA, employers spend more on musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) than on any other condition or chronic disease. The direct costs of musculoskeletal disorders amount to $20 billion each year and include medical claims for diagnostic imaging, physical therapy, and both surgical and non-surgical interventions. (Northeast Business Group)


Although not directly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, other factors such as mental health issues could contribute to increased safety risk and accidents within safety-sensitive workplaces.  Further, worker shortages could contribute to overuse and straining of muscles which are risk factors in musculoskeletal issues. 


See the table below from CCOHS for a list of the most common disorders associated with musculoskeletal issues and to identify any risk factors that may have been aggravated during the pandemic. 


Identified disorders, occupational risk factors and symptoms
Disorders Occupational risk factors Symptoms
Tendonitis/tenosynovitis Repetitive wrist motions
Repetitive shoulder motions
Sustained hyper extension of arms
Prolonged load on shoulders
Pain, weakness, swelling, burning sensation or dull ache over affected area
Epicondylitis (elbow tendonitis) Repeated or forceful rotation of the forearm and bending of the wrist at the same time Same symptoms as tendonitis
Carpal tunnel syndrome Repetitive wrist motions Pain, numbness, tingling, burning sensations, wasting of muscles at base of thumb, dry palm
DeQuervain's disease Repetitive hand twisting and forceful gripping Pain at the base of thumb
Thoracic outlet syndrome Prolonged shoulder flexion
Extending arms above shoulder height
Carrying loads on the shoulder
Pain, numbness, swelling of the hands
Tension neck syndrome Prolonged restricted posture Pain


4. Non-Work-Related Injuries and Accidents

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Not much you can do about non-work related injuries besides finding a way to allow for remote work or assigning the worker to a task they're able to perform safely. 


5. Home & Family Responsibilities

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Home and family responsibilities are among the top 10 causes of long-term absenteeism  and the top 5 causes of short-term absenteeism.


With the outbreak of COVID-19 and consequent business closures, school closures, sick family members, etc.,  home and family responsibilities have become a greater burden on non-remote workers and a greater contributing factor in absenteeism.


Due to the volatility of our current situation, these familial responsibilities will continue to be more often unplanned or "incidental," as well as long-term, representing the greatest absenteeism cost to employers.


"The combined total costs for incidental and extended absenteeism— the kinds of absenteeism employers try to minimize — add up to 9.2% of payroll. This figure is more than half the cost of healthcare, measured at 15.4% percentage of payroll in Mercer’s 2007 National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans. Employers tend to focus their energies on controlling healthcare costs, since the dollars are easily measured, but this new survey suggests that large opportunities exist for managing absenteeism, if employers could reasonably quantify them."  (Mercer)



Costs of Planned and unplanned Absenteeism


The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that productivity losses linked to absenteeism cost employers $225.8 billion annually in the United States. Unplanned absenteeism, such as calling in sick, results in double the productivity loss than a planned absence, such as PTO or vacation.  During the pandemic, factors like becoming infected with COVID-19 or being forced to quarantine, have resulted in increased unplanned absenteeism, contributing to a 36.6% loss of productivity due to unplanned absenteeism compared to 22.6% for planned absenteeism.  (SHRM)


Annual cost of lost productivity due to absenteeism by major U.S. occupations



Additional Costs of Absenteeism in Shift Work

According to Circadian, an average US shift worker costs $2660 more each year in direct absenteeism costs compared to a day worker.  For a company with 500 hourly shift workers, this translates to $1.3 million in absenteeism costs each year.

# of Shift Workers

Extra Absenteeism Costs









Source: Circadian. 


Sources of unplanned Absenteeism Costs

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Unplanned absenteeism are typically more costly than planned absenteeism because they result in a slew of other indirect costs such as: 

  • Increased workload
  • Increased stress
  • Disruption of the work of others
  • Reduced morale
  • Reduced productivity
  • Increased mandatory overtime
  • Increased training
  • Negative impact on team performance and cohesion

Other negative consequences of absenteeism:

  • Increased # of safety issues
  • Increased employee health problems
  • Overtime fatigue or understaffing
  • Increased tension with unions
  • Higher turnover rates
  • Reduced ability to meet demand 
  • Reduced quality of goods and services

Solutions to unplanned absenteeism during covid-19

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As the pandemic rages on, how can you reduce unplanned absenteeism, reduce costs, and wriggle your business out of the clutches of this devastating virus? 


Let's start with the three causes of unplanned absenteeism that are most heavily aggravated by the virus and most within your control: illness, mental health issues, and on-the-job injuries. 


1. Illness


Although you can't prevent a worker from contracting the virus outside of work and falling ill, you can limit the impact it will have on your entire workforce and the costs it incurs for your business.  To nip it in the bud, you can:


Screen workers for COVID-19 before they come on-site:

Several apps are now available for contactless check-in and approving or rejecting worker site access based on temperature checks, health questionnaires, and saved COVID-19 test results. 

Use contact tracing:

Contact tracing has already been implemented by many businesses and has been accepted by most U.S. workers. A recent survey of 1,007 employees by SHRM found that 68% of respondents agree that employers using contact tracing would help to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. 57% said they would feel more comfortable at work if their employer were to use contact tracing and 53% said that the benefits of the practice outweigh potential privacy concerns.


Contact tracing can also help you anticipate future absences so that you can plan and train replacement workers ahead of time and you're not caught off guard if half your team calls in sick! 


Clearly communicate your attendance policy regarding COVID-19:

It's highly likely that some of your workers are confused about your attendance policy, especially as it relates to COVID-19 and constantly changing state and federal regulations. Such confusion may result in workers coming on-site after having been exposed to COVID-19 or even while sick due to fears of termination, wasting their time off, or missing out on a day's wages. Incentivizing and encouraging workers to stay home when sick or exposed to COVID-19 can help your business avoid long-term direct and indirect costs of both absenteeism and presenteeism. 


Tip: Global Virus Pass is one of the only apps on the market that offers all the COVID-19 management solutions you need in one place: site access management, COVID-19 testing, and contact tracing features. Now, it is also supplemented with the real-time fit-for-work test, AlertMeter®, which in 60 seconds identifies health and safety risks such as illness, precursor to illness, fatigue, intoxication, and mental distress. Schedule a demo to learn more.


2. Mental health issues

Dealing with mental health related absenteeism can get a bit more complicated. To limit the mental health burden of the pandemic on your workers and thus curb long-term consequences and costs, here are some good recommendations from the VA


Be flexible:

Employees under stress may seem to be doing well one day, and then regress in their focus and productivity the next day. Check in with your workers frequently to assess their progress and determine whether certain accommodations can be made to help them overcome their stress and improve their performance. 


Be patient:

If your workers experienced severe negative impacts of COVID-19 such as loss, illness, distress, or long-term wear and tear, they will need more time to fully recover. Being patient as they progress and regress and then progress again on their path to recovery will reduce conflict and help ensure a smoother transition into daily work routines. 


Show support:

When your workers are stressed, the simplest gesture of support and understanding can mean a lot to workers. By being supportive, you demonstrate to your workers that you value their wellbeing first and foremost. In a recent study on healthcare workers dealing with COVID-19, high unplanned absenteeism and low job support was associated with burnout.

Supporting and placing value in your workers pays off big time--higher morale, lower turnover, better performance.


Ask questions:

Initiate and maintain conversation with your workers by asking them questions about their wellbeing. Without being intrusive, you can assess their fitness-for-work and offer appropriate countermeasures or accommodations to keep them a valuable worker in your company. 



As we mentioned earlier, it's important that your workers are informed by you about the latest developments concerning the pandemic and reminded about new and old policies related to COVID-19.  Open and transparent communication with workers can help alleviate anxiety and stress about the future, help build trust within the workforce, and prepare workers for upcoming challenges. 


Tip: The AlertMeter® is a great conversation starter for workplaces. It assesses workers'  mental and physical fitness-for-work in a 60-second cognitive test. Taken daily, it has helped many supervisors increase their awareness of the issues that workers face on a daily basis including mental and physical distress and preoccupation. In many instances, the AlertMeter® has helped supervisors identify and address difficult personal problems such as the loss of a family member; a sick child; and even substance abuse. Although such personal preoccupations can be disastrous within a safety-sensitive work environment, supervisors are often hesitant to intrude and find out about them. Or, they don't have the time to check in with each worker individually each day. AlertMeter® helps supervisors address these issues quickly and in a non-intrusive manner. 


3. On the job injuries

On the job injuries are more likely amidst the chaos of the pandemic. Replacement workers, distressed workers, over-worked workers, under-supervised workers, etc.  are all at greater risk of an on the job injury. To reduce these risks and save money, consider these suggestions:


Properly train replacement workers:

Invest the time and energy to train replacement or temporary workers to perform tasks safely when they're filling in for another worker. If possible, train workers ahead of time in various roles so that they are able to fill in seamlessly in the event that a worker is out due to COVID-19. 


Ensure cognitive fitness-for-work:

Workers suffering from COVID-related problems such as illness, personal problems at home, or mental distress are more likely to injure themselves on the job. To reduce these indirect consequences of COVID-19 in your workplace, screen your workers before each shift with the 60-second fit-for-work test, AlertMeter®. 


By identifying workers who are struggling with illness, preoccupation, fatigue, intoxication, distress, and more, the AlertMeter® has decreased accident severity by 68% and reduced total recordable incident rate by 50%. 



By being proactive and taking the necessary steps to prevent illness, mental distress, and on-the-job injuries, you can drastically reduce one of the most costly and destructive impacts of COVID-19 in your business--unplanned absenteeism.


According to the Society for Human Resource Management, it is critical that companies accurately track unplanned absenteeism both to monitor costs and to counsel their employees on attendance policies when necessary.


Increasing and improving communication with your workers; reviewing workplace policies to encourage and incentivize the safest and most cost-effective solutions for the long-term; and implementing essential technologies such as the Global Virus Pass and AlertMeter to help retain a grasp on your business operations and stay ahead of daily risks are all proven strategies that have helped companies stay afloat during these challenging times. 


Schedule a demo to begin reducing unplanned absenteeism in your workplace with AlertMeter and the Global Virus Pass:

Schedule a Demo to Learn More!