"Shouldn't you be at work?" - sports presenter Des Lynam's famous words during the BBC's World Cup 98 coverage may well be repeated by many an employer over the next week or so.

For as the Beijing Olympics reach a crescendo, businesses are once again facing up to the challenges posed by a major sporting event.

But there are ways to ensure that the 29th Olympiad does not add to the headaches being suffered by credit-crunched employers. And, with a bit of luck, businesses will manage to keep absences to a level equivalent to Great Britain's eventual medal haul and ensure that as few working hours as possible are lost due to Olympic Fever.

They may even be able to harness the Olympic spirit and use it to boost morale within the workplace, says Aberdeen employment law expert Kim Pattullo.

"The difficulties posed by the Olympics have been seen before, but are arguably greater than ever. Unexplained absences, poor timekeeping and low productivity have all been symptoms of World Cup, Wimbledon and Open golf tournaments for many years," explains Ms Pattullo of leading UK law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn.

During the 2006 World Cup, one poll showed that 13% of men and 4% of women had called in sick either to watch or recover from a football match and the attendant celebratory or sorrow-drowning consequences. And a survey in New Zealand has estimated that its national economy will lose more than £5.5 million due to the working hours lost as a result of the Olympic Games.

This year television coverage of the Olympics generally starts at 2.50 am so, even if employees are at work physically, they may not be mentally attuned to the task in hand by the time they arrive at their desks.

And what exacerbates the challenges in 2008 is that these are the 'Digital Games' - media coverage from Beijing, across a multitude of digital channels and a vast array of websites, means the Olympics can be accessed from anywhere.

The BBC is offering over 2,000 hours of live streaming video and 3,000 hours of 'on demand' content. Even in organisations that prevent staff from viewing such material, tomes of constantly-updated content in other formats can be found on just about every news agency's website. Plus the Games are readily available on many workers' mobile phones, and the BBC is even sending its viewers text alerts when the next big event is about to start.

Kim Pattullo says: "All this brings the employee closer than ever to the action, and for this reason employers would be well-advised to embrace the Olympic spirit and to adopt a flexible approach to the Games.

"Restating annual leave and disciplinary policies before the events begin is always recommended and employers could consider allowing radios and/or televisions into the workplace. Another option could be to adopt a 'flexitime' approach that allows staff to make up any hours missed through watching the Olympics at other times during the working day or week."

But whatever policies they adopt, employers must be careful to ensure they do not directly or indirectly discriminate against any of their staff, warns Ms Pattullo.

"For example, accommodations made to cater for sports enthusiasts must be offered to all staff regardless of sex, age or race. If British staff are permitted to watch Team GB compete in one event, then staff of other nationalities ought to be accommodated when they want to follow their respective countries' progress. It may even be necessary to allow those employees who are not interested in the Olympics the equivalent time off, perhaps at a later date."

Tesco's policy during the 2006 World Cup is a useful model, says the Shepherd and Wedderburn expert. "It installed televisions in its staff canteens and allowed staff to take time off, swap shifts and take breaks to watch matches. It communicated its policies extremely well through posters and a newsletter and used the World Cup as a team-building event.

"The company negotiated the pitfalls of discrimination law effectively by encouraging employees to bring their national flag to work so that it could be displayed alongside those of their colleagues. By creating special "Footie-free" areas, it also ensured that those employees who were rather apathetic towards events in Germany did not feel disenfranchised or discriminated against."

So the Olympics should not be seen as something to censor, but should be used as a tool to re-engage with staff. The challenges presented by this year's Olympics will surely be more acute four years from now when they are on our doorstep. If these challenges are managed correctly, however, staff might feel less inclined to stay at home and curl up with the Des Lynams of the day.

Kim Pattullo is a partner specialising in employment law at leading UK law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn LLP.

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