25 Jan 2021

Managing Sickness Absence at Work


Employees may need time off for a variety of reasons, from short-term sickness to longer-term health issues. An effective absence management framework should support the health needs of employees while providing clear and consistent guidance to avoid unauthorised absence or inappropriate use of sick pay schemes.

Sickness Absence Policies and Procedures

In order to effectively manage absence as well as support employees it is vital for companies to ensure they have clear and consistent absence policies and procedures in place. These documents should cover procedures for managing both short and long-term absence as well as what happens should absence levels become unacceptable.

The policy should cover subjects such as details of sick pay, sickness absence notification and certification requirements, any trigger systems used, how absence will be monitored and managed, attendance of return-to-work interviews, reasonable adjustments etc.

Promoting a positive attendance culture, while emphasising that genuine sickness absence will be supported, can help to ensure illegitimate absence is not tolerated and attendance-focused initiatives are supported.

Absence Management Training

Training line managers in absence management is useful to ensure all managers have the information they require, they avoid discrimination and they are being consistent when managing their staff’s absence. This will also mean they are more confident when they need to have difficult conversations with individuals about their absence.

Measuring absence

Accurate measurement and monitoring, identifying trends and exploring the underlying causes are key elements in effective absence management. There are lots of different methods and tools available to measure absence, and each organisation should decide on a method that suits them. Whatever method is used, it is important that consideration and possible adjustments are made for any employee with a disability.

Short Term Absence

Employers should remember that most absence is genuine and that employees often need sympathetic support in their recovery from illness. However, employee absence is a significant cost to businesses, so it is also important to record and manage absence levels closely.

During 2020, the main causes of sickness absence were identified as ‘Minor illness’ (includes colds/flu, stomach upsets, headaches and migraines), Musculoskeletal injuries, including back pain, Stress, Mental ill health (for example depression and anxiety), Sickness absence in the time of coronavirus.

Effective attendance management involves finding a balance between providing support to help employees with health conditions to stay in and return to work and taking consistent and firm action in the minority of cases where employees could try to take advantage of their organisation’s occupational sick pay scheme.

Return-to-work interviews

It is advisable to carry out Return-to-work interviews following every absence, including 1-day absences. These meetings should be used to discuss the reasons for absence, whether they needed to see a doctor, if they are taking medication, whether the absence may be related to an underlying condition, what support they might need on returning to work.

If their absence follows several other absences the discussion should also include expectations of improving their attendance as well as explaining the negative impact their absence has on the organisation. If they have hit a trigger this needs to be explained to them and they should be invited to attend an Absence Review Meeting to discuss their absences in more detail and how the company can support them to improve their attendance.

If absences continue the business may need to decide to start formal capability or disciplinary procedures, depending on the individual circumstances.

It is advisable for managers to consult HR before commencing these formal procedures.

It may be useful to consider requesting a GP report or even referral them to Occupational Health. If an employer requests a medical report from a health professional, they will need to seek the appropriate permission from the individual (Access to Medical Records Act 1988) and also ensure they comply with the Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA) when they collect, use and store information about their employees’ absence.

Long Term Absence

An employee is usually considered to be on long term sick when they have been off sick for more than 4 consecutive weeks. This can be challenging to manage as the longer someone is off sick, generally the harder it can be for them to return. Regular but non-invasive communications is vital when supporting individuals back to work.

Developing effective return-to-work programmes, making reasonable adjustments and offering flexible working where possible form part of an effective attendance management strategy, particularly for managing long term absences.

If you would like to have an initial conversation around the above, or anything else HR related, please do contact Juliet Mellues on 01793 818300 or send her an email.