Managing Sickness Absence

Employers and workers in the UK will be anticipating an increase in seasonal colds and flu at this time of the year, due to the cold weather. Sickness absence can be costly to employers, but also concerning for employees that need to take time off. Supporting employees and effectively managing sickness absence could help employers to reduce absence levels in their workplace.

Below are some key elements to consider when managing sickness absence and supporting employees whilst they are off work, to effectively support employees’ health and wellbeing and to make sure productivity and morale in the workforce is not impacted.  

Reducing absence in the workplace

Preventative measures can sometimes have a much bigger impact than reactive ones. Of course, not all absences are preventable, but an employer’s approach to supporting staff can have a real impact on employees’ wellbeing.

It is important for employers to recognise when the workplace itself or what is being asked of staff might be impacting absence levels. Indeed, long-term absences can sometimes be related to work, such as work-related injuries or work-related stress. Employers can re-issue health and safety policies and procedures to ensure all employees are aware of them, which can in turn help to prevent work-related illness. 

Employers should also monitor absences effectively to keep track of an individual’s absences, support employees appropriately and identify sickness patterns across the workforce. For instance, if members of staff are taking time off work for similar reasons, such as work-related stress or injury, it may highlight that there is a problem in the workplace.

Supporting staff at work

Providing the right support at work could help reduce sickness absences. It is important for employers to inform employees of the support that is available at work, such as line managers, HR, occupational health, workplace counsellors, and employee assistance programmes, amongst other things.

The work culture created by a line manager is one of the most important factors in an employee’s experience at work. Creating an open and inclusive environment could help an employee take steps to discuss any difficulties they are experiencing with their line manager or another member of staff.

Being able to empathise and show understanding are essential management skills to maintaining successful working relationships. Therefore, employers should provide line managers with the tools and training they need to be able to support their staff, as well as themselves.

Supporting staff during absence

It is good practice for employers and employees to mutually agree a reasonable ‘keeping in touch’ plan, so everyone has a clear understanding of what level of contact is best.

Employers should maintain a reasonable level of contact when an employee is off sick from work, as the employee is still under the employer’s duty of care. Maintaining a reasonable level of contact should help preserve a positive working relationship between the employee and the employer and, in turn, help to ensure that a safe return to work can be put in place when the time comes.

Contact should not be so infrequent that an employee feels forgotten about or, alternatively, be too frequent that the employee feels pressured to return to work before they are ready to do so.  Employers should be flexible and take on a personable approach.

It is also important for employers to keep absent employees up to date as much as possible with any workplace changes or opportunities. Given that some long-term absences are caused by or linked to a disability, a failure to inform someone of an opportunity at work could potentially be considered as discrimination.

Supporting staff returning to work after absence

When an employee feels well enough to come back to work after an absence, it is good practice for employers to have a discussion before they return, so the employers understand whether the employee is able to carry out all their duties or whether any amendments or reasonable adjustments may need to be implemented.

Employers should have an absence management policy in place which would also cover the return to work process.

When an employee returns from sickness absence, their line manager should conduct a return-to-work meeting on the employee’s first day back to work. The return-to-work meeting should enable the employer to ensure that the employee is ready to return to work. It is also an opportunity to discuss any amendments or phased return that have been agreed prior, whether anything related to the workplace has impacted the person’s absence, and whether any retraining might be needed in any areas if the person has been off work for a long period of time. Employers should keep a written record of what was discussed during the return-to-work meeting.

It is still appropriate to hold a return-to work meeting when someone has been on a short-term absence, as it allows an employer to see if someone is well enough to return to work and to discuss whether the absence has triggered a formal procedure that will follow.

Having a discussion around wellbeing during a return-to-work meeting should help employers to establish whether there are any concerns for the employee’s health and the appropriateness of the employee being back at work.

Please note that this is a very brief summary of the key elements to consider when managing sickness absence in the workplace. The contents of this article do not constitute legal advice.  If you require any further information please contact us at or on 02920 345 511.