Working Through Omicron—or Calling In Sick

Uh-oh. You feel a sore throat coming on. By morning it has progressed to sniffles, a headache, and . . . a positive COVID-19 test. You know to stay home, but what about your morning of back-to-back Zoom meetings, plus the memo and report due tomorrow? And two of your teammates are already out sick.

It’s a conundrum faced by hundreds of thousands of leaders and employees this week alone. And  according to a report of a World Health Organization warning, half of Europeans are expected to contract the virus in the next eight weeks, creating a mass sick-leave scenario for which most companies have no policies. How, after all, can leaders manage workers who have contracted a virus that makes some feel fine, some feel “eh,” some feel sick, and some feel ill enough to be bed bound? “Safety is the first priority,” says Liz Schaefer, who leads Korn Ferry’s Professional Search practice. “But from an HR perspective, the challenge is to meet the needs of the business while keeping people safe.”

Omicron presents a particularly gray area for managers of white-collar workers. Of course, people who are significantly ill should call in sick and seek treatment. But this COVID-19 variant often causes milder symptoms, raising these questions: what about people who can sit up and log into meetings but feel as if they have a bad cold? What about those who are physically fine but struggling with the mental health effects of enduring yet another quarantine? The managing problem is further compounded when coworkers feel that their ailing colleagues’ work is being dumped on them. Studies show that when employees know their peers are not severely ill, they often feel resentful about shouldering the extra workload.

Experts say that for leaders, tone is as important as strategy when it comes to coping with these complications. “Leaders need to guide with empathy when it comes to people with COVID, whether mild or severe,” says Bradford Frank, senior client partner in the Technology practice at Korn Ferry. “Some might not be sick but have to quarantine; others can put in only a couple hours in the morning. And some might work at only 50% effectiveness.” The key, he says, is communicating sympathy, as well as clearly explaining the situation to clients.

As a rule of thumb, aim for empathy and flexibility, says Brian Bloom, vice president for global benefits at Korn Ferry. “You want to meet folks where they are.” Where that is will vary. Some employees may be able to return after just two days off. Others may be healthy but managing a family member’s hospitalization. Still others may find themselves stuck at home because of successive quarantine periods of different children. Different situations call for different methods of support. “It’s about analyzing the needs and responding with the appropriate benefits or resources,” Bloom says. He encourages leaders to remind workers that they can take a day off for their mental health  when they’re also managing a child’s remote schooling, for example. “There’s an emotional toll on people,” he says

If possible, managers should lean toward allowing employees to skip all nonessential work. “At the end of the day, if your people are feeling sick, it’s not just about contagion but about the ability to do work and be productive,” says Juan Pablo González, sector leader for Professional Services at Korn Ferry. Let that peaky-looking employee take a nap. 


Originally published by Korn Ferry.

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