Managing staff sickness absence

The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) published their eighth national survey of absence management policy and practice.

According to the survey the average employee now takes 8.4 days off sick each year, costing employers £659 per employee per year.  It is inevitable that some employees will need to take some time off sick but long-term sickness and growing rates of short-term sickness can have a huge impact upon business.  But what can businesses do to do tackle absence?

If an employee frequently takes single days off sick, monitor the employee’s absence and keep a record of each occurrence.  Holding a return to work interview (RTWI) will assist in establishing the reason for the absence and enable employers to ensure that the employee is well enough to return to work.  The meeting can also be used to update the employee on information missed during their absence.

Getting to the problem

Many employers find that RTWIs assist them in identifying early signs of problems that could continue.  For example, the absence may be due to work related sickness or to family problems at home.  This enables the employer to consider whether there is any assistance they can give or any reasonable adjustments they can make to assist the employee in preventing further absence from the business.

Encourage employees to seek medical advice to establish whether there is an underlying problem.  If the absence is frequent, consider asking the employee to see an occupational health therapist to advise whether there is anything that can be done to prevent further absence.  Ensure there is a contractual right to do this and/or obtain the consent of the employee to receive feedback from the medical adviser.

Genuine absence?

If absences are numerous or there is doubt as to whether the employee is genuinely unable to work, employers can consider invoking the disciplinary procedure.  Internal absence policies should be used to assist managers in applying the procedure fairly between employees by stating at what point these procedures should be invoked.  It is very important not to discriminate against employees who are absent due to a disability.

Where an employee has been absent on a long-term basis care should be taken to treat the individual fairly.  The employer should first try to establish the reason for the long-term absence and seek further medical advice on the possibility of recovery.  A report from the employee’s GP may assist or the services of an occupational health specialist or corporate GP may be obtained with the permission of the employee.  Either way, the employer should seek to find out:

  • Whether the employee will be able to return to work in the foreseeable future.
  • If they can return, when this might be.
  • Whether any return to work will need to be on a phased basis.
  • Whether the individual may be a disabled person under the Disability Discrimination Act and if so, whether there are any reasonable adjustments that need to be made to assist their return.
  • If medical opinion shows that the individual is unlikely to work again, and the employer has considered all of the above points, then it may be possible to dismiss the employee on capability grounds.  If so, it is important to follow the statutory disciplinary and dismissal procedures to assist in proving that the dismissal was fair.  Further advice should be taken on a case-by-case basis.
  • Most importantly employers should establish structured policies and procedures to assist managers in dealing with employees who are absent.