Managing Sickness Absence

Apr 12, 2023

Managing sickness absence is often challenging, finding a way to balance being compassionate and recognising a duty of care to an individual, with the practical limits of what a business can sustain.

This can be particularly true in small teams or businesses where people know each other well.

So what can help make it better? Below are some tips for having an effective plan in place.

Get the facts

  • Start by making sure you are recording sick leave accurately so that if you need to take further action you have clear facts to work with.
  • Ask employees to supply self certification for the first 7 days sickness and fit notes after that (see our “What to know this month” section below for some changes to the fit note scheme). This gives you clear information to base your actions on.
  • It is up to the individual how much they share with you, beyond the basic information recorded on the certificate, but the more they tell you the more you can help and respond in an appropriate way.
  • If you require employees to self-isolate for a certain period of time when they have tested positive for Covid, be clear how you are recording this and whether it counts towards people’s sickness absence or is considered separately
  • This may be some of the most sensitive information you hold on individuals so it is important that it is stored confidentially and isn’t being shared more widely than necessary. That being said, sometimes individuals facing a challenging health problem may prefer their colleagues to know – it’s important to discuss this with the individual to find out their preference.

Plan ahead for how you will deal with sickness absence

  • It is a good idea to have a policy in place (however brief) and set expectations.
  • There is no set definition of how much sick leave someone can have. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2021 the average sickness absence in the UK was 2.2% or 4.6 days per worker. Of course this is very much an average, and some people will have considerably longer offset against those who have no sick leave in that time.
  • What level of absence you can sustain will depend on the nature and size of your business. If you have lots of other people doing the same job who can help pick up the work, or if you can arrange agency cover reasonably easily/affordably, this will be different compared to a very small business or where they are the only person who is able to perform a particular function.
  • Remember you are aiming to act reasonably, fairly and equitably.
  • You will also want to look at the situation in the round, including the individual’s employment history e.g. someone who has worked for you for 10 years with barely any sick leave would reasonably feel unfairly treated if they were dismissed very quickly. However if there is a consistent pattern of high levels of sickness this is likely to require further action.
  • It is up to you if you want to set fixed “trigger points” e.g. a certain number of days or occasions of absence, but for many small businesses it may be more appropriate to respond on a case by case basis, as long as you can show you are being fair and equitable.

Sick pay

  • Sickness pay provisions vary widely from small businesses that only pay Statutory Sick Pay to large public sector organisations that may offer employees up to a year of payments.
  • Remember sick pay provisions don’t have to restrict how you act: e.g. you can start managing the situation before the sick pay runs out, and equally an individual can remain on unpaid leave if this is appropriate.

Work with the individual to try to resolve the situation

  • As with so many HR situations, communication is important. Hold Return to Work interviews with your employees if they have been off sick. If it has only been a day or two this may just be a quick conversation to ask how they are feeling now. If the absence has been longer, or part of a pattern, this is a good opportunity to spend some time reviewing the situation and what might help them improve their attendance.
  • If you agree action plans make sure you follow them up e.g. if you commit to meeting once a fortnight to review how things are going and provide support, it is important these do happen.
  • Be mindful of underlying conditions. For those with long term chronic conditions, they will often become an expert in their own condition and what helps, so make sure you are asking them for ideas e.g. later starts, opportunity to work 9 day fortnight, work from home some days, have more flexible breaks etc.
  • If someone has a disability, you have a duty under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments. What is reasonable will depend on the circumstances . This is a good example of where “equitable” might well not mean “exactly the same” for everyone.
  • When someone has been off for a while, consider a phased return – it is surprising how tiring and overwhelming it can be for someone coming back to work, so it can be better to take time and make sure they are properly re-established.
  • Where the issue is with frequent short term absences it can be helpful to look for patterns to try to discover what is happening. Sometimes it is because the person is trying to come back too soon – whilst we want to encourage people to attend work they may need “permission” to recover fully. With hybrid working in particular it can be easier for people to do little bits of work whilst off sick – this may have benefits but it may be better for the employee to rest and then be able to return at full strength.

Get outside help if needed

  • Many businesses will have written in their contract that they can ask for individual to undertake a medical assessment and it can be helpful to get an independent report
  • There are lots of sources of support out there, particularly where the individual is dealing with a disability or long term condition. It can be helpful for both the business and the employee to seek advice.
  • We are able to help manage individual cases, as well as advising on overall policy and procedure. Sometimes it can be easier for us as someone outside the situation to help you have those difficult discussions.