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Is a winter World Cup going to cause a staffing crisis?

In a major departure from the summer standard, the 2022 Qatar World Cup starts this month. Although it's unusually late, it'll be Christmas-come-early for football fans. But not so much for the people employing them. So, how big of a problem will World Cup employee absenteeism be, and how can employers work around it?

Unless you're living under a rock, it probably hasn't slipped your notice that this year's World Cup is... a tad late. The reason for that is actually due to this year's host country, Qatar. During the summer, when World Cup tournaments are usually held, Qatar's weather gets ridiculously hot. As in breaking 40° Celsius without even trying. The kind of summer heat that sets a new national record every year. So it's pretty understandable why FIFA doesn't want people playing in those conditions.

And so, this year's World Cup will kick off on the 21st of November, with the Final taking place just seven days before Christmas. So, let's look at what to expect, and how flexibility can see you through it.

How the World Cup has impacted HR in the past

Fair access to time off is one of the most vital workplace issues. And, of all the competitive times of year to try and book off, it's hard to imagine a bigger one than the World Cup. Even during a typical Cup year, it's one of those things you probably dread having to manage around. It's easy to search up pages of articles going back years priming readers for a tidal wave of World Cup employee absenteeism. And those are all from years where there hasn't been a several month delay.

Going into this, everyone seems to have the same expectation. That supply (time off) won't be enough to satisfy demand (aggravated football fans). And anyone who can't book match days off could well be tempted to use sick days, or take an unauthorised absence.

Back in 2014, a study from Canada Life Group collected employee responses on the run-up to the Brazil World Cup. Almost a tenth admitted they'd consider pulling fake sick days to watch matches. And, although that might not sound like a lot, it equated to 2.4 million in the working population at the time.

On average, people reported they would take around 1.8 days off. But some of the more die-hard fans admitted they'd take over a week off. Add to that the people who are booking time off legitimately, and you could be facing some serious disruption.

Christmas and World Cup employee absenteeism combined

So, to make things even more stressful, it's all happening on the lead-up to Christmas. AKA the most competitive time of year to try and book off. An infographic of survey results from Namely shows the most popular time off requests from employees.

Even though people tend to take their longest holidays in summer, people actually take time off most frequently in December. Twice as often as nearly any other month. Combined with World Cup employee absenteeism, it's a perfect storm.

Balancing these two events so close together isn't easy. If someone cashed in all their time off to cover Christmas and football matches, they'd realistically only end up working a handful of days in December. And if everyone in your business did the same, everything would collapse.

And let's not forget that some businesses take a "use it or lose it" approach to giving time off. So, if you have a bunch of staff looking to use all their vacation days by the end of the year, it's going to be even worse.

All of this runs the risk of creating major staff shortages. And, during the Christmas season, it's likely to hit specific sectors especially hard. For example, the season is likely to be so hectic for delivery personnel that the Communications Workers Union has withdrawn plans to continue a series of strikes in November.

So, what can you do to ensure people get fair time-off allocation, and how can you prevent World Cup employee absenteeism this Christmas?

What to do about World Cup employee absenteeism

As with any workplace issue, there are a range of tools at your disposal. And like any other issue, it's all about communication and transparency.

Check in with people about their time-off needs

If you sit there waiting for the time-off requests to start pouring in, you're missing a trick. It'll be easier to manage them if you can get a sense of what people want ahead of time.

Luckily, these kinds of impromptu engagement concerns are just what our check-in system was made for. It's just as easy to personalise questions as it is to create general ones for your whole team.

Take advantage of the calm before the storm. Check in with your people and figure out what days they want off. If there's any diversity to your workplace at all, it may not just be people clamouring for the England matches.

If you're lucky, everyone's requests will vary enough that you can fit people in around each other. And, if not, then you've given yourself several more weeks to figure out what to do.

Ensure fair access without favouritism

Few things are more heart-breaking than anticipating an event like this...

...only to find out your boss and his favourites have taken first dibs on the holiday rota before it's even gone up.

We've said it before, and we'll say it again. Transparency is essential for employee engagement. Without it, people worry about double standards and favouritism. And the perception of unfairness is damaging, whether it's accurate or not.

But that still leaves the issue of how to go about it. Some employers run highly sought-after time-off on a first come, first served basis. Others might pre-allocate every employee a certain number of "high value" days they're allowed to book off. For example, in the service industry, it's common to give employees the choice of either Christmas Day or New Year's Eve.

However you do it, make sure your people are clear on it ahead of time. Whatever system you have for booking holidays needs to be both easy to find and user-friendly.

Offer flexibility for those who must work

It's worth taking another look at that Canada Life Group study from earlier because the employees came armed with solutions. The most popular solution with employees was shift flexibility (35%). But 30% also suggested that being allowed to work from home would prevent them from taking sick days. And that's a clear enough insight that you shouldn't need a sentiment analysis algorithm to understand it.

Of course, in the eight years since that study, remote work and general job flexibility have had a bit of a boom. So, in fact, a good WFH arrangement might be your best bet for preventing World Cup employee absenteeism. If you don't believe us, try collecting feedback from your own staff.

Find non-disruptive ways for employees to tune in

Putting on games or highlights at work can give people an outlet for their football fever. Of course, that's dependent on being able to do so without ruining productivity. A TV on in the background may be fine for some teams, but not for others.

There's also the option of radio, or even a TV set up in a break room showing every match live. Just be aware of any licensing requirements for broadcasting live sporting events on business grounds.

As always, check in with your people about what measures they'd be comfortable with. Make sure you've got a large enough quiet workspace for anyone uncomfortable with the distraction.

And if England or Wales get to the Finals...

Every year, it's the same thing. "Football's coming home, lads!"

So... what if, this year, it does by some miracle. If a UK nation makes it to the Finals, all bets are off (metaphorically speaking, of course). Any football fan in your business is going to have their excitement turned up to 11 and the dial ripped off.

Look, we're not trying to tell you what you have to do. But look at it this way...

If the President of a firm in Japan can give employees time off to play a new Monster Hunter game, you can close down for the day and let people watch our first World Cup Final since 1966 from the comfort of their own home.