Tips for managing sickness absence


28th March 2023

Managing sickness absence is crucial for organisations. According to the most recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) report, sickness absence rates in the UK are the highest they’ve been since 2010.

Setting the scene

The importance of supporting and managing sickness absence was evidenced from the fact that over 500 people registered for a webinar on this topic with Blake Morgan employment law experts Rajiv Joshi, Vicky Schollar and Debra Gers. The panel also covered supporting employee wellbeing proactively, crucial in attempting to reduce absence numbers.

Whilst there were high levels of sickness absence due to COVID-19 over the past two to three years, measures such as the furlough scheme, social distancing and home working actually helped to reduce other causes of absence initially. The trend is now shifting back to pre-pandemic levels with sickness levels increasing as people are mixing more, socially and at work, as well as the increase in mental health related conditions.

The ONS reports that an estimated 149.3 million working days were lost because of sickness or injury in the UK in 2021, equivalent to 4.6 days per worker. Ill health among working-age people is costing the economy £150 billion a year according to The Times Health Commission.

Managing long-term absences

Long-term sickness is more obvious and easier to spot than short-term absence. Whilst there is no definition in law as to how long someone needs to be absent to qualify for long-term sickness absence, it could be reasonable to expect that someone who is signed off for a month or more (and not expected to return immediately) is classed as long-term.

Employers should have policies and procedures in place that highlight trigger points for action to be taken when an employee reaches a certain level of sickness absence.

It is vital to stay in touch with absent employees and ensure that avenues of communication remain open to find out how you can support the employee and to keep them updated on what is going in within a business. Organisations may also refer an employee to Occupational Health to find out more about an employee’s condition and to see if reasonable adjustments can be put in place. Phased returns to work might be necessary after a long period of absence.

Employers should ensure that they have the most up-to-date health information, a medical report and have considered any reasonable adjustments before deciding what alternatives there may be, if a return to work is not possible. It is important to act consistently.

Short-term sickness absences

Odd days of absence or underlying health conditions can be more difficult to pick up with short-term sickness absence. Ideally you would have proper monitoring in place, such as return to work interviews or use a monitoring tool like the Bradford Factor. This is a formula, which is used in human resource management as a means of measuring worker absenteeism.

Once high levels of absenteeism have been picked up, employers should consider trying to manage the situation by going through a formal process. The key thing is to engage with your employee. Do not shy away from potentially tricky conversations. Asking what support the employee needs to help them perform better in their role is crucial.

  • 1) The first step would be to sit down and have an informal chat with the employee to see if there is an underlying health condition or issue at work e.g. trying to avoid bullying that might be causing them to be absent.
  • 2) If there are underlying issues, see if you can put adjustments in place to deal with them.
  • 3) If there are no underlying issues, the employer needs to make it clear that continued absence without a good reason cannot continue and the effect it is having on the business. The employee should be warned of the consequences if attendance does not improve.
  • 4) A formal process would then need to be put in place if absence remains high over a defined period of time, which would usually be staged warnings culminating in dismissal if there is no improvement. Dismissal would be on notice and for the potentially fair reason of capability.

Questions often arise with short-term sickness absence as to whether it is genuine or not, particularly if it arises on a Friday or Monday or if the employee has requested leave and been refused. Where absence claimed as sick leave is believed not to be genuine then this should be dealt with under the employer’s disciplinary procedure.

Hybrid working challenges

Hybrid working comes with unique challenges in managing sickness absence. Employers have a duty to take care of their staff – this applies wherever they work and covers their physical and mental health.

If you are not physically working with an employee it can be more difficult to support them. You might not be aware of any issues or workload problems. It would be beneficial to train all managers on how to look out for certain triggers, which may indicate an underlying problem. Keeping lines of communication open is key.

There is also the issue of the employee not being able to switch off when they are working from home. Managers should stop and ask why they are receiving an email so late or early in the day. Why is the employee working at that time?

Employees can also continue to work from home even if they are ill. Do you want them to do this? As an employer, you have a legal obligation to look after your staff and issues may arise if employees are not resting when they should be, such as taking longer to recover or mistakes made. Further, absence records may not be accurate if employees are working from home whilst ill as the normal sickness absence reporting procedures won’t kick in. Policies and procedures may need reviewing and amending to reflect hybrid working.

Occupational Health

Employers have mixed reviews of the value that Occupational Health reports provide. The best way to get a clear and detailed report from an occupational health referral is to make sure it is tailored to the specific situation. Do not have a standard questionnaire, make sure it relates to the individual and their specific circumstances. The more you put in, the more you get out of it. Ask relevant questions such as:

  • What is their health condition?
  • How does it impact their ability to perform their role?
  • Is it a disability under the Equality Act 2010?
  • Are there reasonable adjustments that can be made, if so, what are they?
  • What is the prognosis? Will the employee be able to return to work or their normal duties in the foreseeable future?

Face to face meetings with occupational health can be better than a telephone call. Set out clear instructions as what to look at and do not be afraid to ask follow up questions if the report is not clear.

Sometimes it may be necessary to ask occupational health if they have someone who specialises in a particular area or to write to the employee’s consultant. This might be necessary if you have detailed and specific questions or if a condition is unusual.

How can Blake Morgan help?

There are numerous legal issues to consider when managing sickness absence, some of which are not straightforward particularly if the employee has a disability within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010. Having clear policies and procedures in place which have been communicated to staff and which managers have been trained on is important. View a recording of this webinar here and if you need legal advice on managing sickness absence, contact our specialist employment lawyers.

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