Managing Sickness Absence - the dos and don'ts

With flu season underway employers will want to take the most appropriate and cost-effective approach to managing short-term sickness absence.  The statistics speak for themselves: 80% of sickness related absences are short-term sickness and it costs the UK economy £10-12 billion annually.  Whilst employers will not be able to control some illnesses, effecting a positive policy that addresses sickness absence can be very beneficial in reducing absence levels.

7th October 2005

With flu season underway employers will want to take the most appropriate and cost-effective approach to managing short-term sickness absence.  The statistics speak for themselves: 80% of sickness related absences are short-term sickness and it costs the UK economy £10-12 billion annually.  Whilst employers will not be able to control some illnesses, effecting a positive policy that addresses sickness absence can be very beneficial in reducing absence levels.

The first issue to be addressed is who has the responsibility for managing employee absence.  Welfare Reform Minister Margaret Hodge has highlighted the importance of doctors taking care when issuing sick notes to employees.  However, using GPs to manage sickness absence is, according to some commentators, an unnecessary drain on NHS resources.  The employer is arguably best placed to shoulder the responsibility of managing short-term sickness absence in the quest to reduce unnecessary spending and retain a healthy and happy workforce.   

Last year the CIPD published a useful factsheet outlining best practice in this sensitive area.  They recommend that every employer have in place a clear policy on sickness absence that sets out the respective rights and obligations of both the employer and employee.  Policies ought to include details on employee notification of sickness absence, certification requirements, details of contractual and statutory sick pay and provisions for return to work interviews. 

The CIPD also highlight the importance of measuring and monitoring absence.  In addition to increasing awareness of the cost to the business of sickness absence, effective monitoring of sickness absence can bring to light underlying causes of absence such as increased workload or behaviour of a particular manager.       

Communication is key to improving sickness absence levels.  Line managers need to be trained in communication skills as, according to the CIPD, they have an important role to play in encouraging employees to discuss their problems at an early stage to identify where reasonable adjustments can be made to prevent further absences.  If the employee divulges personal information, the employer must comply with the laws on data protection in the use and retention of this information.  Persistent short-term absences may indicate an underlying disability and the employer should always bear in mind its obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. 

Return-to-work interviews are, according to the CBI, viewed as the most effective management tool for sickness related absenteeism.  Return to work interviews allow employers to express to employees that they are valued members of the business and provide an opportunity to update the employees on what has happened in their teams during their absences.  Return-to-work interviews also provide a further opportunity to discuss with the employee whether they require any support or assistance to reduce their levels of absenteeism or, indeed, in returning to work after an illness.  The employer has an obligation under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to protect employees returning to work if their illness has made them more vulnerable.             

Whilst positive policies will be beneficial in reducing short-term sickness absence, there may come a point when an employee's persistent short-term sickness absences can no longer be sustained and the employer has no choice but to look towards discipline and thereafter possibly dismissal.  Any dismissals resulting from sickness absence must follow the appropriate procedures as laid down in the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the Employment Act 2002 (Dispute Regulations) 2004.                     

Employers cannot prevent an employee from catching the cold but they can adopt a positive policy towards identifying the causes of their employees' short-term sickness absences and thereafter take action where possible to eliminate the cause, be it through training, counselling, reasonable adjustments or discipline for those with a tendency to pull one too many "sickies."