Managing sickness absences – a quick guide

Absences from work can take a variety of forms. A worker may exercise their legitimate contractual or statutory right to not attend work in the following circumstances: for annual holidays, public holidays, to attend a training course, to take maternity, paternity or adoption leave, to care for dependants,  as a result of a bereavement, to take time off for jury service, to engage in Trade Union activities, or because they are ill. Generally, unless an employee has a contractual right, they do not have a statutory right to time off to attend routine medical or dental appointments.

Employers should always keep information about the number of unplanned absences that their employees take, including the number of days absent for, how many spells of absence there have been, the reasons for any absence, whether the employee can prove the reason for the absence, and the details of the individual employee absent. Employers should be careful to ensure their employees that such information is being collected on the behalf of their employer, otherwise they may fall foul of the Data Protection Act 1998.

If an employee is sick the employer should ways investigate the absence. This allows the employer to confirm that the sickness-related absence is genuine, what the cause of the ill-health is, and to determine whether or not it will be possible for the employee to return to work. Further, it may alert the employer to any claims it is exposed to and allow the managerial team to plan business in the employee’s absence, arranging cover if necessary.

As well as conducting an investigation, the employer should maintain appropriate levels of contact with the employee. Clear written guidelines should be produced so that employees are aware of their responsibilities if they are absent from work because of illness. For example, on the first day the employee must telephone their line manager and speak to them personally to inform them of their illness, unless there are severely mitigating circumstances. The employee should then provide a “fit note” after four days and keep their manager updated as to when they believe they will return at four-day intervals after that. An employer should also consider what steps could be taken to support the employee and to arrange cover for the employee and/or consider what steps should be taken to reintroduce the worker into the workplace. It should be clear to employees what the consequences will be if the rules relating to reporting absences is not followed. If the absence is long-term then employer should consider whether it should take steps to terminate the contract of employment. However, employers should be careful to carry out such an action with care and attention, as if not then a claim for unfair dismissal and/or disability discrimination may not be far in the offing.

It is clearly important that managers and supervisors are trained in handling absences and that they are able to take responsibility for managing absences.

The right to statutory and (if applicable) contractual sick pay should be made clear in any written policy. This should make it clear when the employee’s entitlement commences, how long the entitlement to SSP or contractual sick pay will continue for, and what will happen when the employee’s SSP entitlement ceases. The employer should constantly review the entitlement of all employees to sick pay.

They say that prevention is better than cure and this would certainly seem to apply to sickness absences. Recruitment policies should therefore attempt to ‘weed out’ potential employees that may be susceptible to long-term sickness absences (however, this is again tempered by the requirement not to discriminate against candidates i.e. by asking prohibited s.60 questions on disability). For current employees, policies should be devised so as to encourage attendance. Encouraging team working is a good start, as this may pressure employees into good working practices. In addition to this, a certain degree of flexibility is encouraged, as well as encouraging a focus on outputs and performance targets instead of simply working hours. Further, agreeing with your employees what reasonable absences are (i.e. emergencies and medical appointments) will avoid misunderstandings or abuses of the system later.

As can be seen from the above, employers must have a comprehensive and consistent absence policy to encourage good working practices, allow managers to deal with long-term absences, and avoid potential claims for unfair dismissal or discrimination.