The best way to deal with the high levels of absenteeism predicted during the World Cup is for employers to take a flexible approach when it comes to key matches, says Steve Crabb

With the start of the World Cup less than a month away, smart employers are already putting plans in place to help their staff to follow key matches - either in or out of the workplace. The alternative is likely to be serious levels of absenteeism.

According to a survey by YouGov for HR information service Croner, one in seven young men are thinking about taking a sickie so they can watch a game. The survey also revealed that 13% of men, and 4% of young women, confessed to doing so in the past.

Absenteeism is already a huge problem in the UK: the CBI estimates that we lost up to 23 million working days in 2004 due to staff pulling sickies, costing the UK economy in the region of £1.7 billion.

Although the CBI's analysis doesn't look specifically at the grocery sector as a whole, transport and communications and retail had the second and fourth highest absence rates respectively, suggesting this is a big problem for grocery businesses as well.

Major employers in the sector are already on the ball as far as the World Cup is concerned, though. For example, Asda has announced it is giving every one of its 150,000 workers the opportunity to take up to two weeks' unpaid leave from June 9 throughout the competition.

In terms of 'German Jolly' World Cup Leave, Asda staff can take this extra time whether they're planning to go to Germany or simply want to enjoy the matches from the comfort of their own home or the pub. Apparently a number of head office staff have already put in requests for leave.

In addition, stores will be running shift swapping schemes, allowing extended breaks and ensuring that televisions for sale on the shop floor will also be tuned in to the World Cup.

Asda has applied a similar flexible approach in previous tournaments - including Euro 2004 and the last World Cup in 2002 - when a BBC survey predicted that one worker in three was likely to take a sickie to watch England's opening match against Argentina. As a result of this strategy, the store experience absolutely no increase in absenteeism among its employees.

Ben Wilmott, a policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development specialising in absence management, has this advice: "It is in employers' interests to recognise that the Football World Cup is a special event for lots of employees.

"It makes sense to allow staff the flexibility to enjoy games that matter to them - and, with an increasingly diverse workforce, we shouldn't assume that means just England's matches."

However, these rights should also bring responsibilities with them, as Wilmott warns: "Employees need to understand that the World Cup won't be an excuse for behaviour that wouldn't be tolerated normally - turning up late for work or under the influence of alcohol.

"Employers could remind staff of their policies in these areas and make it clear that exceptions won't be made just because it is the World Cup."

Employers who are feeling generous - and who think they might need to do audio-visual presentations in the future - might be interested in investing in a high-tech media room, with flat-screen TV and full cinema surround-sound.

Hi-Tech design and installation company Touch of a Button is offering media rooms at prices starting
from £4,950.

Alternatively, Tesco offers a portable TV for £59.99.

Steve Crabb is editor of People Management