Too Sick to Come In

Nearly 2 million US workers are calling in sick thanks to the pandemic. Will companies still be able to get their work done?

Companies expect workers to get sick in winter. From 2015 to 2019, an average of 981,000 US workers missed work because they were sick during the month of December.

But those were numbers for the pre-pandemic era. This past December, 1.9 million people missed work due to illness, more than double the five-year average. It was the second-worst month for worker illnesses since the government started tracking the statistic in 1976. It’s a particular problem for manufacturers, retailers, and other organizations that can’t have most of their work done remotely. Experts believe January and February could be even worse, and while organizations can take some steps to manage the shortage, experts say most will need to reset their expectations on how much work can be accomplished. “At end of the day, you may not be able to meet the challenge,” says Nathan Blain, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s global lead for optimizing people costs.

To a certain degree, companies have had this problem for months. Last April, more than 2 million workers were sick, an all-time high, and the country has had at least 1 million workers calling in sick each month ever since. What’s more, experts say it’s hard to measure the impact, if any, such worker shortages might have on product supply or the bottom line. But these next two months are traditionally the high-water mark for employee illnesses.

Even the current high rate may be underestimating COVID’s impact on the workforce. In the Department of Labor’s most recent Household Pulse Survey, which was conducted in December, the government estimated that more than 18 million people weren’t working because of the virus. The figure includes people who were sick as well as those who stayed home because they were worried about getting or spreading the virus, those caring for someone with symptoms, and those looking after children not in school. “You’re doing more with fewer people. That’s the most obvious answer, but it’s true,” says Cheryl D’Cruz-Young, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm’s Chief Procurement Officer Center of Expertise.

Experts say there are some actions leaders can take that could mitigate the illness issue. First, managers can staff at 120% of capacity rather than 100%, says Mark Royal, senior director for Korn Ferry Advisory. Managers can then just bake in the assumption that 20% to 30% of their workforce will be out due to illness, but they’ll still have enough people to do the work. It’s a potentially inefficient practice that managers shouldn’t normally attempt—but in these times, Royal says, it could be a good investment because the odds are high that people will continue to be out sick or stay away from work to avoid getting sick.

Another option: enlarge the pool of potentially available talent. Staffing agencies could supply temporary help—although possibly at a premium cost for a full-time employee. Organizations can also look to people who took seasonal jobs during November and December as a pool of potential recruits. Or companies could try to coax people out of retirement to help fill short-term needs, D’Cruz-Young says, a tactic successfully employed by some healthcare organizations during the first few months of the pandemic.

Companies could also train some employees on critical tasks so they can eventually cover higher-skilled roles in the event of future absences. It’s a costlier, more time-consuming option, but it could be worth it for roles that routinely have talent shortages. “That would make a good place to invest,” Blain says.

However, in some cases, no amount of staffing workarounds and cross-training may make up for all the absences. In those situations, managers must be extra concise about what top priorities the healthy employees must accomplish. “If employees recognize that the cavalry isn’t coming, then knowing and focusing on what’s most critical can help,” says Royal. “Other things might slip, but that is going to have to be OK.”