An Employer’s Guide to Employee Sickness & Absence Management

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Identifying Sickness Absence

Sickness absence can prove very costly for employers irrespective of the size of the company. The impact is not only financial however as it can have a massive impact on the overall efficiency of the company and crucially your ability to meet the needs of your clients and customers. This is why work absence management plays such a crucial role in all companies both large and small/.

Absence management covers several areas, but before we can focus on how to manage absenteeism, we need to look at the different types of absence, while hopefully expelling a few commonly held myths and answering some frequently asked questions about managing absence along the way.

How many ‘sick days’ are employees entitled to?

Most of us are absent from work due to sickness from time to time, but there is no sickness ‘entitlement’ set out in UK law.

Employees are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) which they can claim for up to 28 weeks; however, there are certain exclusions and eligibility criteria for this which will be explored in a later article.

When is sickness absence not sickness absence?

  • Sickness of a dependant such as a child or other relative. The employee is not sick, so don’t record it as sickness. This is time off for dependents, is purely for an emergency, and is also unpaid.
  • The car won’t start. Again, the car may be sick, but your employee isn’t, so it’s not a sickness absence. Likely to be unpaid leave.
  • Dentist appointment. Unless their dentist tells the employee they cannot work due to dental treatment; an appointment is not classed as sickness absence. Also, this type of appointment should be taken in the employee’s own time where possible and is usually unpaid unless the time is being made back up.

I have an employee who has a medical condition, and they are absent a lot more than their colleagues- what do I do?

An employee with a long-standing medical condition is likely to be classed as having a disability under the Equality Act.

If their condition causes them to be away from work, then your employee absence management policy needs to look at making ‘reasonable adjustments to their work environment. This is not redesigning the job so that it causes a detriment to the employer but looking at making changes such as increased breaks, changes to hours or shift patterns etc.

These changes may be easily implemented within your sickness absence policy and could have a big difference in helping your employee attend work more regularly and also ensure that you are adhering to your duty of care.

What about non-disability-related absence management?

Absences such as coughs, colds, upset stomachs etc. are usually referred to as ‘general absences’. Provided they do not relate to an ongoing medical condition this form of sickness absenteeism can be managed by your company’s disciplinary procedure.

What about pregnancy-related absence management?

Pregnancy-related absence is not disability-related, nor it is a general absence.

Pregnant employees are protected from the less favourable treatment for managing sickness absence on the grounds of their pregnancy. So if they were to be disciplined because they had reached certain absence triggers (more about absence management tools further down), then this constitutes less favourable treatment.  Why? If they had not been pregnant, they would not be been disciplined with normal sickness management protocols. Disciplinary action in this instance employee absence management is also discriminatory on the grounds of sex because of course, a male employee is not going to face disciplinary action for pregnancy-related absence.

How can I combat employee absence with effective absence management?

However, if you are in doubt about your approach to managing absence we always recommend you seek advice from someone qualified, as miss management of absence can lead to complications such as discrimination and unlawful deduction of wages plus other serious consequences, depending on each case. – With workday absence management it’s not worth taking any risks so be safe and always take advice. Please feel free to call our free advice service on 0800 015 2859 and we can always guide you in the right direction leading to effective absence management decisions.

How can I identify the reasons for my absence when my employee says that their health is their business and I have no legal right to ask them about it?

Future down we will focus on what information you can request by way of medical reports and how to go about this. However, sickness absence records are essential. Just explain to the employee that the information will be held in the strictest of confidence and that you have a duty of care to manage sickness absence according to the company’s sickness and absence policy. If they won’t provide reasons, then the absence may be classed as unauthorised.

Remember- Sickness absence is often an inevitability, but it’s not an entitlement.

Not all sickness absences are equal, so ensure the reasons for the absences are clearly recorded to avoid costly mistakes.

The importance of Record-Keeping in Absence Management

What information do I need to record when managing sickness absences?

When advising employers on managing sickness absences, I will always need to see the absence record of an employee.  That doesn’t just mean the number of days they have been absent, it MUST include the following:

  • The date/s of absence
  • The reason for the absence

Am I allowed to ask for the reason for an employee’s sickness absence?

All sickness is confidential but your employee is absent from work so they cannot refuse to tell you why. When managing sickness absences do make sure that they are able to speak to someone in a position of authority and that the conversation is kept confidential and can’t be overheard etc.

Isn’t ‘sickness’ the reason for the absence?

It is but unless you ask what is wrong with your employee while managing absence you will not be keeping accurate records. Remember, you have a duty of care to disabled employees and if the reason for absence is disability-related you will miss a vital opportunity to try and identify any reasonable adjustments. Asking about staff sickness is a legal requirement under the Equality Act.

The absence may be pregnancy-related, this may prompt revisions/updates to the initial pregnancy risk assessments you carried out. REMEMBER- Our Health and Safety experts can provide step-by-step guides to risk assessments, please call us on 0800 015 4494 if you wish to discuss.

Managing Sickness Absence

Can you issue warnings to employees for being off sick?

Yes, you can. By recording the absences properly in your employee absence management process, you may even be able to spot patterns. For example, are the absences always occurring on Mondays and Fridays, before or after annual leave/bank holidays or during key sporting events? You can tackle this.

Employees can’t help being ill, is a warning fair?

If you follow a fair disciplinary and investigation process (remember our experts are on hand to give bespoke advice on this) then it is appropriate to use disciplinary action to tackle frequent absence as part of your leave of absence management policy.

Remember:

  • Please don’t go too far back on your records, look at the last 12 months’ attendance initially.
  • Make sure that if you use methods such as the Bradford Factor to highlight absence trigger points, that any absences for disabilities, pregnancy and time off for dependents are not.

I suspect my employee has not been genuinely ill – can I withhold sick pay?

If you have a reasonable suspicion that your employee is not genuinely ill, then you do reserve the right to withhold sick pay. However, when taking this kind of absenteeism management approach, you need to be very careful.

Please don’t act on assumptions or hearsay. Investigate properly and seek legal advice from our absence management experts.

Remember- statutory sick pay (SSP) is a ‘statutory’ payment required by law. Contractual sick pay is a contractual entitlement. So withholding these payments as part of your absence management policy should be an absolute last resort and exercised with caution.

What is classed as a long-term sickness absence?

Unsurprisingly there is no legal definition of what constitutes ‘long term absence’.

Long-term sickness absence will depend on the illness your employee has and what their GP/Specialists are advising them in terms of treatment and prognosis. This is why keeping regular contact with a long-term absent employee is important.

My employee needs an operation and may be off for some time. They have also indicated they may not be able to return at all or may even need adjustments to the workplace. I am supportive but I am very concerned about the financial impact of paying sick pay and paying for sickness cover. What can I do?

This is the type of long-term sickness absence scenario where you are now faced with assessing your employee’s medical capability, i.e., whether they are medically fit to work.

Start by seeking their consent to obtain a medical report from their GP/Specialist and/or refer them to occupational health.

Do I need an absence management report if my employee is telling me they may not be able to return to work?

Employees who are absent long term are very likely to be classed as having a disability in accordance with the Equality Act.

Avoid unfair dismissal and discrimination claims when managing absence by showing that you have acted reasonably and have:

  • sought medical guidance ahead of making any decisions
  • Considered if reasonable adjustments can be made to assist the employee in returning to work.

Can my employee refuse to give permission for a medical report?

Yes, they can refuse permission in accordance with their rights under the Medical Reports Act.

If they refuse then you will likely be forced to make an employee absence management assessment regarding their ability to work based on the information you have i.e., how long they have been absent and the information they have given you to date.

So whilst an employee can refuse it’s not really in their best interests if you have an effective attendance management policy in place.

Can’t I just ask an employee with a high rate of sickness absenteeism to resign?

No. You must never ask an employee to resign and this should be part of your sickness policy.  If they have over two years’ service this can lead to a claim for constructive dismissal and also in the case of long-term sickness absence, a discrimination claim.

Remember:

  • It’s vital that employers seek employee absence management advice before dismissing an employee for any reason but particularly medical capability.
  • Compensation awards for discrimination claims are uncapped.
  • Don’t forget about your absent employee- you have a duty of care to keep in touch
  • Our legal experts are on hand to give you bespoke absence management advice and sickness management guidance on this and all associated sickness and absence policy matters.