A Guide To Managing Employee Sickness Absence

Managing employee sickness absence can be one of the most common problems facing employers, with high absence levels potentially resulting in a substantial cost to your business. Staff morale can be affected if other employees have to frequently cover for those who are off sick, which can also lead to growing resentment if they feel absence procedures are being abused.

Young employee at work

From the employer’s perspective, it is often important to strike a balance between supporting employees who are off ill and managing the problem in order to prevent it from having a damaging impact on your business.

What Steps Can I Take To Manage Employee Sickness Absence?

It is always advised that employers have a procedure in place for dealing with sickness absence. This helps to ensure that all employees are treated the same way and held to similar standards. It also provides managers with a useful blueprint on how to manage an employee’s absence.

By complying with a reasonable policy, companies can reduce the risk of any claims being brought against their company. As an additional step, employers may want to ensure that their managers are well trained when it comes to dealing with employee absence. Employers should also engage with employees as much as possible.

Conducting back to work meetings after an employee has returned from a period of absence is a good way of doing this. This allows employers to explore any steps they can take to assist their employees.

Dismissal of an employee should be your last resort. If an employee is dismissed based on absence and then it comes to light that the absence was justified, then you could be looking at costly litigation fees from an unfair dismissal claim against your company.

What's The Difference Between Intermittent Absences And Long Term Absences?

Employee absences can often occur on a number of separate occasions but on a regular basis. These types of absence are known as intermittent absences. As a basic example, this could involve an employee going off for a 2 or 3 day period of leave on four or five occasions throughout the year. Studies have shown that these types of absences can be the most disruptive to an organisation.

Longer term absences could involve an employee going off for a period of at least 5 or 6 months with a serious condition. It is important that employers distinguish between the different types of absence at an early stage as they usually need to be managed through a different process.

How Should I Tackle Short Term Absences?

It is common for employers to set out the number of days they consider reasonable to take off ill before an employee is subject to a formal procedure. These are known as ‘trigger’ points

As an example, an employer may say that if an employee is absent for 10 days or more within a one year period then this will trigger the first stage of the process. This usually involves an initial written warning or an improvement notice. If the employee’s absence levels persist, the employers may then move to the second stage of the process.

At each stage of the process, employers should conduct a review meeting with the employee. During that meeting, the employer should explore the reasons for the employee’s absence. If the employee has a particularly serious medical condition then the employer should obtain a medical report or make a referral to occupational health.

After 2 or 3 improvement notices have been served on the employee and the absence continues, then it may be open for the employer to conduct a final review meeting. At this point, an employer could take a decision to terminate the employee’s contract of employment.

An employer still has to act reasonably before this final step. It is usually advisable to contact an employment lawyer or solicitor before dismissing an employee.

How Do I Manage Long-Term Absences?

Managing longer term absences follows a similar procedure. This involves conducting at least two review meetings before any decision is taken to dismiss the employee on grounds of ill-health capability. Employers should ensure that the review meetings are adequately spaced out to provide the employee with an opportunity to make a recovery.

Two to three months is considered a reasonable period between each meeting. Up-to-date medical evidence should also be obtained. This will allow the employer to discuss the nature of the employee’s condition and find out whether the condition is likely to improve over time, or if there anything the employer can do to help the employee overcome their absence issues.

Before any decision is taken to dismiss, an employer should explore whether there is any possibility of the employee returning to work in the near future. If this is the case then the employer should exercise caution before dismissal the employee. As a general rule, employers should also consider redeploying the individual to another role, if any suitable vacancies do exist.

Whilst employers should generally take a consistent approach in the way they treat their employees, they may want to exercise some discretion in particular cases. For instance, where an employee is suffering from a particularly severe condition then an employer may want to allow for an extra period of recuperation time.

The employer’s approach may also be dictated by the nature of the employee’s role. A front line role such as a company director or a school teacher may allow the employers to go through their absence procedures within a shorter timeframe.

Is Managing Absences To Do With Disability Different?

When managing employee sickness absence, it's important to know whether or not the employee has a condition deemed a disability under the Equality Act.

The Occupational Health department of your company may express a view on whether or not an employee could be considered disabled, however the final decision rests with an employment tribunal's assessment. For such an assessment, an employee will need to provide evidence of the disability.

An employee is taken to have a disability if their condition has an adverse impact on their day-to-day activities. If the employee struggles with activities such as eating, sleeping or socialising then this is usually a good indication that they could be considered disabled under the meaning of the Equality Act.

Employers are obligated to implement reasonable adjustments where possible. Classic examples of this include reducing the employee’s hours of work or amending their day-to-day duties. Employers should also look to re-deploy the employee into a suitable alternative role where vacancies to exist. In the context of absence management, employers may also be expected to discount some absences that are connected to the employee’s disability.

What Are My Alternatives To Dismissal?

Once an employer has got to the end of their absence management procedure then the employee will usually be invited to a final ill-health review hearing.

At this point, the employer may take the decision to terminate the employee’s contract. As an alternative to this, an employer may want to offer the employee a settlement agreement. This comes with the benefit of ensuring that the employee will not issue any employment tribunal claims.

Every case is different however and in some circumstances they employer may not find it suitable to offer a settlement option.

Unfair dismissal of an employee due to absence can carry serious consequences and lead to costly litigation fees. If you are an employer and have found yourself dealing with an employee's absence be sure to contact a member of our Employment Law team. At Simpson Millar our team of specialist solicitors can assist you, whether you’re an employer or employee dealing with an absence issue.

If you prefer you can contact us by completing our no obligation online enquiry form.

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David Hession | Associate, Employment Law | Simpson Millar LLP

David Hession
Associate, Employment Law

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