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Managing Sickness Absence

Employment solicitor Natalie Ruane highlights some key factors in managing sickness absence.

The UK’s largest annual survey of sickness absence rates and costs conducted by XpertHR demonstrates that sickness absence was an average of 2.8% of working time per annum, or 6.5 days per employee, during 2014.

This costs employers an average of £16 billion. XpertHR’s research findings are based on data provided by 670 organisations covering just under two million employees, making it the most current and largest survey of its type at this time.

This huge cost alone reinforces why it is so important for employers to manage sickness absence, especially persistent short-term absence.

Why do managers find it so difficult to manage absence? 

Perhaps on the one hand they do not wish to appear 'too aggressive'.  They may not want to be seen to be pressurising an employee to return to work too soon.  This is a legitimate concern.  If employees come back before they are fully fit, it can result in otherwise unnecessary recurring absences.  Worse still, employees who feel unjustly pressurised generally have longer absences than might otherwise have been the case. 

Another situation which seems to prevent a manager from taking action to manage sickness absence is when there is doubt about whether the employee’s reasons for absence are genuine or, more commonly,  when the manager doesn’t think that the condition is as serious as is being made out, but doesn’t know how to prove that and chooses instead to pretend that the absences aren’t happening.  This can leave the employee feeling as if no one cares and can lead employees into taking even more time off work than they might have done, or worse, they may feel pressurised while genuinely unable to return to work, and their working relationship with their employer may deteriorate.

How to Manage Sickness Absence

There are some key factors managers and HR departments should bear in mind when managing sickness absence to ensure that they are fair and consistent, particularly when managing recurring persistent short-term absence.

Firstly ensuring an effective sickness absence management policy, which works for the organisation, is in place.  This should include rules on absence reporting and recording procedures.  You cannot manage sickness absence if you do not keep an accurate record of it.  Coherent application of the procedure gets employees used to what to expect and it also removes the contention of inconsistency or employees feeling picked on.

The frequency and means of contact between the employee and their line manager should also be clear in the policy.  The manager needs to be encouraged to propose regular welfare reviews to discuss the employee’s progress, health problems and their return to work plans.

If there is a concern about the length or frequency of the employee’s absences from work, there may be a possibility that there is an underlying medical condition.  Therefore the employer may wish to arrange an independent medical assessment or write to the employee’s GP for more information.  Although the GP report may be cheaper, remember that the GP will usually write the report to suit their patient, the employee, rather than the employer’s needs.

Return to Work Interviews

The return to work interview allows both the manager and the employee the opportunity to confirm that the record of sickness absence is accurate and to discuss any remaining health concerns that may affect work.  It is also an opportunity to discuss any reasonable adjustments that may need to be considered. The important thing for the manager is to remember to actively listen, be objective, supportive and non-judgemental.

The return to work interview permits the manager to discover what the underlying reason for the employee’s absence was. This is important, because collating this information consistently and after every absence may mean that managers might start to see absence trends.  For example if an employee has had frequent absences due to headaches or back aches this may indicate a problem with their desk position, seat or computer screen.

The manager should ensure that both they and the employee sign the return to work interview form.  This should reduce the risk of the employee attempting to contradict themselves at a later date.

Return to work interviews should be a straightforward process and shouldn’t take longer than 15 minutes, if there is an appropriate policy and procedure in place, including a return to work interview form.  The return to work interview is vital for effective sickness absence management but it shouldn’t be an onerous task.

Workplace Support

The manager should explore what, if any, reasonable adjustments may be required.  The types of appropriate workplace support may include:

  • workplace adaptations;
  • a phased return to work plan, based on the employee's noted capabilities and limitations;
  • considering amending the employee's duties whilst on their phased return to work;
  • identifying an alternative suitable role, if available; and
  • arranging regular one-to-one reviews, to discuss progress, support and any further health problems.

Managers shouldn’t be afraid to encourage honest discussions, particularly when sickness absence is persistent and short-term.

These open discussions should assist the manager to identify any potential return to work barriers and underlying issues, as well as examining any problems and developing potential solutions.  The discussions should also help to outline the expectations of both the manager and employee.

Early intervention and continuous honest dialogue encourages employees to raise any concerns and seek support.  From the organisation’s perspective this assists to effectively manage and monitor sickness absence.  It also helps to ensure that the sickness management process is structured, consistent, clear and fair.

If you have any concerns relating to managing sickness absence, please contact a member of the employment law team on 01228 552222.

The employment law team present regular seminars on topics such as managing sickness absence. For further information, visit our events pages.

About the author

Natalie Ruane profile photo

Natalie Ruane

Natalie is a Partner and leads the Employment Law & HR team and specialises in education.

Published: Monday 14th December 2015
Categorised: Employment

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