Managing Sickness Absence

Practical Issues of Managing Sickness Absence

Managers should be aware of important procedural and legal issues which might affect the way that they deal with employees reporting in sick and subsequently managing sickness absence.

A line manager or the HR department will often be the first point of contact for sick employees.  Individuals in these roles should receive appropriate training in order to give them the skills and knowledge to take responsibility for the reporting procedure.

In most situations it will be appropriate to ask the employee for the reason for their absence and the likely date of return.

An effective policy is recommended which will allow employers to deal with absences consistently and effectively. The policy should also set out the reporting procedure in detail so employees can understand what is expected of them.

An employer should require evidence of the employee’s absence from work.  This will usually be self-certification for absences of 7 calendar days or less or a doctor’s note for longer absences.

When an employee is off sick the employer should keep in contact with them, striking a balance between being supportive and not being intrusive.  Employees should be encouraged to update their employer on their recovery.

When absence becomes a problem

Most absences can be dealt with without the need for formal meetings or warnings.  Where the absence levels cause an unacceptable level of disruption to the business however, an employer may be left with no choice but to start a formal absence management process.

Short-term absence

Where an employee is continually absent for short periods of time, it can be difficult to determine whether such persistent absence will improve. In some cases, the absence could be for an underlying condition and so the employer should obtain a medical report to determine whether there is a root cause. Once the employer receives a report from the relevant expert it is advisable to act in accordance with its recommendations. The employer must ensure that if the report suggests that the employee is suffering from a disability, that they comply with the relevant disability legislation and if possible consider reasonable adjustments.

Short term persistent absence can also be caused by minor aliments which cannot be pinned down to a specific condition. If the number of absences becomes excessive, the employer is entitled to give written warnings in the same way as it would deal with poor performance.  Such action can be taken even where the employer considers the absence to be genuine.  In order to do so, it is advisable to have a written policy with the ‘trigger points’ setting out what levels of absence will trigger various stages of the absence management process. If any warnings are given under the process the employees need to be made aware what level of attendance is required going forward (or what will be unacceptable) and the likely sanction in the event there is no improvement.

This process should not be adopted where the reason for the excessive absence is an underlying medical condition, in which case it should be dealt with similarly to long-term absence (below).

Long-term absence

Employers are wary of individuals who have been off for prolonged periods especially where the cause of their sickness is not clear or they are awaiting diagnosis.  It is important however for employers to take prompt action, not allowing the situation to drift until the employee has been off work for so long that dismissal seems the only option.  At the first formal meeting the employer might explore:

  • the likely return date and whether they can continue to wait for the employee’s return;
  • whether the employee believes they can return to the same job and whether adjustments are required;
  • whether the employer wishes to explore alternatives such as redeployment;
  • a possible return to work programme and any assistance the employer can provide;
  • whether the employee is disabled and whether any reasonable adjustments can be made.

Prior to contemplation of any dismissal on grounds of ill health, the employer will need to be able to demonstrate that a full consultation with the employee was carried out throughout their absence, where all reasonable measures for getting the employee back to work were explored.  At the same time, the employer will have to show that it properly investigated the illness by commissioning a medical report from either the employee’s GP, an independent doctor or occupational health specialist with a view to exploring what adjustments could be made in the work place to facilitate the employee’s return.  It is only once an employer reasonably concludes that it is unable to accommodate the required adjustments to facilitate a return to work, or that no return to work is likely for the foreseeable future, that it can take a decision to dismiss.  Even then, employers are required to consider whether there are alternatives to dismissal such as offering alternative employment that lends itself better to the condition in question.  

Also, if the employee is entitled to the benefit of a permanent health insurance scheme, they should not be dismissed if such dismissal would deprive them of the benefit of the scheme.

This is a complex area of law and advice must be sought before any dismissal is made on the grounds of ill health.

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