How to Manage Sickness Absence

An estimated 137.3 million working days were lost due to sickness or injury in the UK in 2016. This number has fallen over the past 25 years from a high of 7.2 days per worker.

The cost to the UK economy as a result of sickness is estimated to be in the region of £16 billion per year.

These numbers demonstrate that sickness absence has a real effect on performance and productivity and every business will be acutely aware of the detrimental effect that sickness absence has on both company performance and other members of staff.

That isn’t to suggest that all employees are malingerers but it is vital for company success to properly manage sickness absence and to be clear around what is and is not acceptable.

Being Sick is OK

It is critical for companies to ensure that their employees understand that being sick is OK. And not coming to work when sick is also OK. “Struggling through” is likely to exacerbate the situation by spreading sickness amongst colleagues leading to bigger problems.

If employees understand that they can take time off to get better, this is likely to minimise disruption and reduce the likelihood that those illnesses will spread.

Having said that, you must ensure that this is consistently applied throughout your organisation. It is of no use having one manager adopt this approach yet have another manager instil a culture of presenteeism at all costs. A sickness policy will help achieve this aim.

When an employee calls in sick

Your managers need to be aware of the various issues which affect the way in which they deal with an employee reporting in sick.

Your line managers will normally be the initial point of contact. Nevertheless, whoever is the point of contact for employees off sick should receive appropriate training in their responsibilities for recording the absence. Key to this training should be the requirement to “be human”. It is possible to have a well-managed sickness absence process and deal empathetically with employees who are unwell.

In most cases it will be appropriate to identify the reason for the absence and the likely date of return. For example, an absence due to a cold or flu will be likely to last only a few days and may be an isolated occurrence, but if a particular employee is frequently off work due to colds there may be some underlying cause which has not yet been identified. In this latter case, properly tracking the absences and the reason will allow for trends to be identified. Most HR management systems will allow you to do this or you may want to use a more dedicated piece of software.

How to manage an employee who is off sick

It is important to maintain regular contact with employees who are on sick leave. This is about managing sickness absence, not about letting it go unchecked for a long period of time. Employees are less likely to take advantage where they feel that their absence will be effectively managed.

Regular means as is appropriate for the situation and the company. If it is anticipated that the worker will be absent for a number of months, regular check-ins every 2 weeks may be acceptable. Similarly, if the absence is only likely to be for a few days, there may be no need for contact after the first report.

You should be careful to avoid the appearance of pressuring the employee to return to work or asking them to become too involved in workplace matters. This is one of those times that having solid business continuity plans really helps. Can you manage if your Finance Manager is ill for a couple of months?

Contact with the employee should be documented and minutes of conversations kept. Similarly, the software you use to manage employee absence should be kept up to date. In the event that there is a later need to discipline or dismiss the employee, you will need the basis on which those decisions are made to be solid.

What to do when the employee returns to work

Return to work interviews are a vital tool in managing sickness absence. They do not need to last long but even a return to work interview of a few minutes is shown to be a disincentive to taking sick leave when not really sick. On a practical note, the interviews can also help accommodate the worker back into the workforce particularly if their illness requires any particular adjustments to be made. The interview can be the place where those are discussed and agreed.

Managing when sickness absence become a problem

Most absence issues can be managed on an informal basis. Informal does not mean “without records” but rather without the need to engage in formal disciplinary procedures. Dismissal for reasons of capability is a lawful means of terminating employment and if the absences of an employee are such that they are potentially incapable of performing their duties, formal steps will need to be taken. In most cases, this will be where the absence or series of absences is having a detrimental effect on functional performance.

If your organisation is considering disciplinary action on the grounds of capability, it is vital that a fair procedure is followed which affords the employee the opportunity to make their case. Even if you have the clearest reasons, failure to follow a fair procedure is likely to result in a successful claim from the employee. I would recommend in all cases that you take specific legal advice on your particular situation.

Broadly speaking, the first formal meeting should be preceded by a written invitation and notification to the employee that they may be accompanied to the meeting. The meeting should explore the nature of the absence(s) and the reasons therefore. It should explore whether or not anything in the job or work environment is contributing to or causing the absences and if this is the case what practical steps may be taken to eliminate or mitigate their absence.

If there is no improvement, it would be necessary to hold a second meeting, again to which the employee may be accompanied. In each case, the outcome of the meeting must be reasonable and fair in the circumstances. If the employee has frequent, short-term absences without reasonable explanation, a final warning may be appropriate. For a longer-term absence supported by medical evidence, consideration may need to be given to alternative employment or reasonable adjustments that might be made to the workplace.

Summary

I would recommend firstly that you obtain specific advice if you are considering dismissal of an employee with more than two years’ service or where you think the illness may constitute a disability. The key takeaway when managing sickness absence is to “be human”. Being empathetic and treating the employee how you would like to be treated is likely to achieve your goals but don’t be afraid to challenge and question if you feel the sickness absence is not genuine.