The early days of winter embrace Christmas and New Year, when people are generally happy and looking forward to celebrations. But in January on return to work, the mood changes. Life seems flat and the holidays months away. Harsh weather makes journeys to work unpleasant — and not surprisingly it is a time when illness peaks. Bob Patchett looks at how to manage winter problems in the workplace and beat the January blues.

An important problem to address therefore is minimising time lost through illness, and we can do this by helping our employees to keep healthy and by minimising the adverse impact of absenteeism on the operation of our organisations. Influenza can put an employee out of action for two weeks, and though flu jabs do not guarantee immunity, nevertheless they are an important safeguard, therefore you should encourage every employee to have one. Some people can get them free, but it may be in your interest to pay for everyone else to receive the vaccine, perhaps by having a doctor or nurse administer them on your premises. In addition, you might usefully hold a stock of aspirin, cough pastilles and tissues to sell or even give to employees who feel something coming on. By so doing you might nip an ailment in the bud and certainly show your employees that you care.

Tell your employees what to do if they develop a cold. Emphasise the distinction between being unable to get up and come to work, and feeling miserable at work. Much depends upon the type of work they do, but even if the work is light, would you prefer that they come in and do their best or stay at home for a couple of days while they are infectious so that they do not cause illness in colleagues? Whatever your view, advise your employees accordingly so that they understand what is expected of them.

Some sickness absence is of course inevitable, so consider the impact this is likely to have on your business and what you can do to minimise disruption. Ideally, make it possible to cover every job if a holder is absent for any reason. Encourage people to be flexible and train them to do work other than their own job. You may choose to make this a condition of a pay increase. However, as well as training them to carry out jobs other than their own, if the situation arises, do not expect them to do two full-time jobs at the same time; you will need to identify the essential elements of each job and combine them into a reasonable day’s work, otherwise resentment will set in. Your managers may need training to carry out this balancing act. Also consider that in case of an epidemic, each key job must have at least two employees who can cover the absence of the normal job holder. Some employees like the security of doing the same work day after day, but many welcome the opportunity of moving around different jobs to avoid monotony. This attitude is well worth developing, and of course is invaluable if there is significant absenteeism, therefore the employees who are willing to be flexible should be recognised, encouraged and appropriately rewarded.

Another problem that you may have to face is power cuts. These are more likely in rural areas, though each autumn we receive warnings that the grid is close to full capacity and therefore power cuts are possible throughout the country. You clearly need to assess the risks to your organisation and make plans to minimise their impact. Encourage laptop users to keep their batteries topped up as much as is possible, ideally by running them on mains power wherever practicable. Ideally, have mains computers equipped with backup batteries so that users have time to save work and close down properly if mains power is cut off. Good computer housekeeping pays off in times of emergency, ensuring that work is backed up regularly to external drives or cloud storage. Should the power outage be for a longer period, which might happen if your own electricity network were to fail, then you may be able to continue operating your business by having people work from home or by hiring temporary premises such as a church hall. In the latter case, you might usefully make arrangements with an appropriate body and consider how best to utilise its premises and power supply such that, should the need arise, you could immediately bring into force a detailed emergency plan to minimise disruption.

You may of course be able to continue work in your own premises by using an alternative power supply. You could do this by buying generators, making sure that you have fuel readily or quickly available, or by arranging to hire plant, though in this latter case you should be prepared to pay a premium to ensure that, if the outage is widespread in the area, you will be a priority customer. Be aware also that ice cream vendors do little business in the winter and might be willing to run their generators for you.

Consider the comfort of your employees if power is lost. They will need light and warmth if they are to work efficiently. You may feel it prudent to keep available warm clothing for people in key jobs, but otherwise urge people to come to work the next day appropriately dressed, and be prepared to let them have regular breaks to get warm and have hot drinks. Suggest they bring flasks of hot drinks, but also try to find some means of heating water, say by portable gas stoves. Consider also keeping in store or hiring portable heaters, and bringing people closer together to make best use of the limited heat.

A large organisation particularly is likely to have difficulties making suitable alternative operating arrangements and making provision for all employees to work anything like normal, therefore you may have to accept that you just cannot operate to your normal high standard. In that case it would be wise to contact your suppliers and customers promptly to let them know your situation, how long it is likely to last, and what temporary arrangements you can make with them. They are likely to voice sympathy, but their concern is their own operations and how your problem will affect them. However, they are more likely to stick with you if they recognise that you are being honest with them and warning them of problems in advance, rather than bluffing and ultimately letting them down.

Many employees have a dilemma if severe weather such as snow or fog occurs. Should they fight their way to work or stay safely at home? Work out and tell them what you expect, which probably is that they try to get to work, even if it means arriving late, but to let you know if they cannot do so.

Your greatest help if winter problems strike is your workforce at every level. Why not form a representative committee to discuss some of these issues with them? By so doing you will make your people feel needed and valued, they will own the problems with you and be far more likely to co-operate. Try it now before winter strikes.

Last reviewed 3 January 2019