What happens to absence management when an already complex task is complicated by a pandemic, new government mandates and statutory paid leave program expansion? HR leaders are considering — and making — wholesale changes to their leave of absence policies. 

That’s a major finding from HUB’s 2021 Workforce Absence Management Survey, which surveyed 547 HR and benefits leaders at organizations with 50 to 1,000 employees. For example, 75% of respondents consider COVID-19 a catalyst for future changes in their paid leave programs.

About four in 10 say they need their leave policies to be more attractive to stay competitive. And 25% say they have altered their absence management programs due to COVID-19. Those findings are indicative of how the workforce absence management landscape has been permanently altered by the events of the last 18 months.

What the survey showed

Digging beneath the surface, the survey found several trends that will influence absence management policies for small and medium-size employers over the long term. Those trends will affect how absence management policies are enacted and enforced:

1. Telecommuting is here to stay. Not surprisingly, the survey showed that the telecommuting boom as a result of COVID-19 isn’t fading. Ninety percent of respondents have offered telecommuting since the start of the pandemic and half intend to make telecommuting permanent.

The reasons for expanded telecommuting go beyond workplace safety: Telecommuting gives employees greater flexibility (according to 85% of respondents) and work-life balance (73%). What’s more, 77% of respondents who allowed remote work before the pandemic saw no difference in performance between working remotely and from an office.

2. Smaller employers lag larger organizations on paid parental leave. Only 25% of respondents offer paid parental leave, providing an average of one to two weeks off. By contrast, 40% to 45% of larger organizations offer paid parental leave and for an average of six to eight weeks. Respondents cited inability to afford paid parental leave benefits as the top reason for not providing paid parental leave. A proposed national Paid Family and Medical Leave would require employers to give 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. Passage of this legislation is not guaranteed, and it is unclear how a national requirement would preempt existing statutory requirements.1

3. Government mandates present challenges, but not overwhelming ones. Federal and state leave mandates can be a difficult HR challenge. The emergency measures in response to COVID-19 required sick leave and family and medical leave. Despite the additional burden, 80% of respondents indicated not struggling to comply with mandated leaves. These findings are atypical in HUB’s experience. Granted, this may be a function of the generally smaller geographic footprint of small- to medium-size employers, with fewer locations and fewer state mandates.

What to do next

Well-designed and maintained leave management programs not only will sidestep compliance issues but help in offering a competitive package of total rewards that will help attract and keep talent.

Taking steps in the midst of change can help organizations stay ahead:

  • Absence management policies are integral to a holistic benefits strategy that aligns with recruiting and retention strategies but also encompasses health and wealth benefits. These policies should not be designed in a vacuum.
  • Company paid leave programs should be designed keeping statutory mandates compliance in mind.
  • As employees can find absence management programs difficult and confusing, ensure policy descriptions and explanations are communicated clearly and reflect workers’ value to the organization.

Workforce absence management programs are critical in today’s environment — handled strategically under an integrated benefits program, they don’t just help shape business cultures, but also make for more efficient organizations that are attractive to potential employees.

HUB International’s expertise on workforce absence management helps organizations gain and maintain a competitive advantage in recruiting and retention. Contact our specialists to learn more.

1 SHRM, “How President Biden's Paid FMLA Proposal Would Work,” May 4, 2021.

Survey conducted by Greenwald Research and in partnership with Voya, Guardian, Principal, and Mutual of Omaha.