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What to Do When Employees Call In Sick


When an employee calls in sick, the pressure's on. Here are some ways to avoid chaos and keep patients happy when you are short-staffed.

You run a tight ship and everyone in your practice has a full plate - or at least they think they do. Usually, your practice is a busy machine - humming along in tune. But when an employee calls in sick, the pressure's on and things tend to fall apart. Here are some ways to avoid chaos and keep patients happy when you are short-staffed.

1. Have a plan

It starts with the old Boy Scout motto: Be prepared! Staff calling in sick is inevitable, so have a plan. Identify the person (position) who will cover when another staff member is out sick. For example, if the check-in receptionist calls in sick will the check-out receptionist be expected to cover both roles? And if so, what tasks does she put on the backburner so she can manage the increased workload? Are there some routine tasks that can be postponed so the day can be managed without compromising patient flow? The best approach might even be for two people to split the most important tasks in a staff member's absence. Regardless, a well-thought-out plan needs to be developed for each position and you need to clearly define how you will keep your practice running during a short-term, unexpected absence.

2. On-call staff

Some practices have part-time employees who agree to be on call to work a full day when a full-time employee is absent. But even in this case, the tasks and responsibilities assumed need to be well defined and management must be sure the employee taking on these tasks has the skill set and training necessary to be able to do the job - and to meet a certain standard.

It is important to identify in advance a reasonable length of time to live with this short-term strategy. If an employee is out less than a week you might be able to manage, but if an employee is out three weeks the practice will hit a tipping point where people are on overload, errors are made, and patient service is compromised. So, your staffing plan must address this issue before it occurs. It takes time to develop a concrete plan, but it is well worth the effort.

3. Absentee policy

Another key point to address is whether trends are shifting and there is an increase in employee absences. If your staff is calling in more frequently than they did in the past, I would want to know why. It might be legitimate, but maybe not. Don't let an employee's poor attendance be an excuse for other staff to do the same.

Review your employee manual and make sure it includes a section on excused absences. For instance, do your employees need to get a physician's note if they are absent for more than one day? State laws will play a role in dealing with long-term illnesses, but make sure you understand what is considered a short-term illness as opposed to an employee being out on temporary disability. Check with your attorney and draft an inclusion in your practice's employee manual. And, don't forget to consistently comply with your practice policies, as well as ensuring you are fair to all employees.

Management must also be willing to examine their own performance when staff absences increase - it could be an indication of sinking morale. Make sure you are providing a positive work environment for your employees. When people like their work and the people they work with they take their job seriously and don't miss much work.

Judy Capko is a healthcare consultant and author of the books “Secrets of the Best Run Practices,”2nd edition, and “Take Back Time." Based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., she is a national speaker on healthcare topics. She can be reached at judy@capko.com or 805 499 9203.

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