HR’s Latest Challenge

An Olive Garden manager recently made headlines when she told workers to prove they were sick or to go find another job. Southwest Airlines similarly sent a memo to their employees saying that if they had called out sick and did not provide a doctor’s excuse, they would be fired. These are two examples of the many recent cases where what researchers are calling the “tripledemic” is starting to influence the workforce. With cases of the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and the newest COVID-19 variant, XBB.1.5, the number of employee absences is on the rise. Trying to put limits on sick policies is the opposite of how organization should be best handling this wave. Not allowing employees to take time off when they are sick will ultimately create larger problems in the future.  

Annie Rosencrans, people and culture director at HiBob HR software firm, stated, “If your employees feel as though they’re being forced to work in unsafe or unhealthy conditions, forcing them to come into work is a very effective way to really crush engagement. If a manager or team lead wants to engage employees, they need to make sure their employees know that their well-being is a priority to them. The moment someone signals employee health isn’t important, they’ll see a dip in productivity and engagement.” Thinking strictly in a logical sense, yes, forcing employees to come to work regardless of the environment’s or the person’s well-being would improve overall productivity. However, this is neither ethical nor engaging for employees to work in poor conditions, including sickness.  

Let’s think about it this way: recall the last time you were sick. You feel weak, are tired no matter how much sleep you get, and food sounds like the last thing you want to think about. Your head is pounding, and you haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep. Now imagine trying to push through those feelings by going to work. You might be able to get yourself into the office, but is your time there going to be spent in a productive way? Will the projects, conversations, and tasks you do carry out be of the best quality? A majority would say most likely not.  

And with the “tripledemic” occurring, more employees are starting to feel this way. The pandemic’s height led to HR departments facing challenges in maintaining consistent staffing schedules that created flexibility for work-life balance and the overwhelming number of employee sick absentees. While these new policies were put in place, many found them to be unsustainable and their structure weakened in late 2021. With the recent spike of employee absentees due to sicknesses like RSV, the flu, and XBB.1.5, HR departments are having to go back and restructure these plans to better work for what is looking an even bigger issue compared to 2020.  

To help accommodate for temporary staffing shortages, Rosencrans suggests that employers and managers need to have a process established for when people are out sick. “Make sure there isn’t one sole person who holds all the information for a project, a deal, a client and so on. Make sure there are resources in place so someone can pick up the pieces if someone drops off. Having a sole source of all the key information puts this employee in a positional where they can never take time off, and it doesn’t create continuity for the team.” In addition, strategies and plans can be created that empower other employees to step up and cover all or parts of shifts if needed. Management needs to be prepared to fill in certain roles for short-term periods. Small and large businesses alike have now seen the damage that a lack of staffing can cause, and should be taking every measure possible to prevent it.  



Mayer, Kathryn. “HR’s Latest Challenge: Managing Mass Employee Sick Absences.” SHRM, SHRM, 9 Jan. 2023,