Sick Businesswoman Work-related Illnesses in the office
Blog • 23.04.19

Managing sickness absence

Kate L
HR Consultant

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Periods of employee absence are inevitable, but they can be disruptive and expensive, especially for small businesses where each individual makes up a significant proportion of the entire workforce. But making sure you have a clear plan when you are faced with a sickness absence can really help when faced with a sick call.

In an effort to keep disruption to a minimum in the short term, you might be tempted to cut corners with absence management. This can be a big risk, leaving you vulnerable to tribunal claims.

It’s also a risk that can usually be mitigated by following a few key principles. These are:

  • Documenting your absence management process in a sickness absence policy and adhering to it fully
  • Ensuring your process complies with UK employment law
  • Treating everyone fairly and consistently in line with your policy
  • Taking a rigorous approach to your documentation of absences

Not only will following a robust absence management process help you to defend yourself, should your treatment of staff ever be brought under scrutiny, but it will also help you to identify staff reaching unacceptable levels of sickness, and encourage better levels of attendance.

In this post we’ll cover:

Managing Sickness Absence

1. Create a sickness absence policy

As with most things in HR, managing staff absence effectively begins with a policy.

Your sickness absence policy should:

  • make it a contractual requirement for staff to notify you of their absence
  • let employees know who they should report their absence to
  • the method of communication you prefer them to use
  • the time you expect them to have notified you by
  • communicate the level of absence the business considers unacceptable
  • set out the trigger points at which your formal absence management process will begin.

A comprehensive policy helps your staff to understand what is expected of them in terms of reporting absence and how their absence will be managed. It also helps you to remain consistent in your approach.

2. Speak to your employee on their first day of absence

We recommend that you always ask employees to call in and speak to you / their manager personally. Having a proper conversation will help you to get a better understanding of the likely length of absence and what arrangements you might need to put in place to provide cover.

The following questions may help you to understand the reasons for absence and help you to plan ahead:

  • Do you know how long you’re likely to be off work for?
  • Could you call me again in the morning to update me on how you’re feeling and whether you’re likely to be in work?
  • What’s the best contact number to get you on?
  • Is there any urgent work you need us to cover today in your absence?

3. Keep absence records up to date

Keep accurate records of all communication you’ve had with the employee regarding their illness as you may need to refer back to this at a later date.

Employers have a duty to keep all records relating to an absence such as Fit Notes, medical evidence, correspondence and notes from meetings. This will be extremely important if you’re ever taken to an employment tribunal.

4. Communicate appropriately with the employee while they’re off sick

It’s important that you maintain a good level of communication while an employee is off sick. This will help you to understand the nature of your employee’s illness and the likely time frame for a return to work.

The frequency of communication will vary depending on the employee’s role and the nature of their illness, but you should agree on the appropriate level of communication with the employee when they first report their absence, so they know what to expect.

Be careful not to be overbearing in your contact with your employee. If it amounts to a level that causes them distress, they may claim harassment.

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5. Statutory sick pay: Do you have to pay SSP?

A question we get from small business owners all the time is “do we have to pay SSP?”

As a smaller business, covering Statutory Sick Pay can feel like a considerable financial burden, but provided the employee is eligible, all employers must pay SSP. Important to note, though, is that SSP eligibility only kicks in if the sickness has been continuous for a minimum of 4 days (including non-working days).

To qualify for SSP an employee must:

  • Have an employment contract
  • Earn an average of at least £118 per week
  • Give you the appropriate notice in line with your policy
  • Provide a Fit Note for absences over 7 days.

Under SSP, the first 3 qualifying days (usually the days an employee was due to work) of the employee’s sickness is unpaid. The employee is only entitled to receive SSP on the 4th qualifying day, providing that the sickness has been continuous for a minimum of 4 days (including non-working days).

Note that if someone only works 2 days a week, for example, they will only be paid SSP if they are off for 2 calendar weeks, i.e., if Tuesday and Wednesday were their working days, the Tuesday and Wednesday of the first week, and the Tuesday of the second week would be the three unpaid qualifying days.

Some companies also choose to offer an enhanced sick pay scheme. This will be detailed in the contract of employment and could be anything from one day to multiple years.

6. Request a Fit Note for an absence of over 7 days

If an employee is unwell and away from work for 7 days or less (this includes non-working days, i.e. weekends), they can self-certify on their return to work. This simply means they can declare the reason for their absence without providing medical evidence.

For sickness absence lasting longer than 7 days, you should request that the employee obtains a GP Fitness to Work certificate (Fit Note or Medical Certificate) advising on the reason for their absence and whether they’re fit to return to work, and to what capacity.

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7. Hold a return to work interview

While there’s no legal requirement for employers to hold return to work interviews, there are numerous benefits in doing so.

If you do choose to hold them, you should make your employees aware of this in your sickness absence policy.

Benefits of return to work interviews include:

  • Checking the employee is well enough to be in work
  • Deterring staff from abusing their entitlement to sick leave
  • Identifying any underlying conditions or disabilities and whether there are any steps you can take as an employer to prevent future absences of a similar nature.
  • Ensuring your records are accurate.

Although ‘interview’ makes things sound formal, these meetings can usually take the form of a casual 5-minute chat. They should still be held in private, though, to protect the employee’s confidentiality.

Be careful not to pressure the employee into revealing more about their absence than they feel comfortable with. You should also avoid challenging whether the reason provided for the absence is genuine without solid evidence to indicate otherwise.

You should hold return to work interviews as soon as the employee returns to work to make sure they’re well enough to be back. You also need to be consistent in holding these meetings for all employees, regardless of the length of sickness.

Frequent short-term sickness absence can be an indicator that a person isn’t happy at work, or is stressed. Holding back-to-work interviews will encourage you to take a closer look at the reasons for sickness so that you’re more likely to pick this up.

If an employee is nearing your trigger point for formal absence management, you should also use this meeting to alert them to this.

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8. Make reasonable adjustments to help those with disabilities return to work

If an employee’s absence is associated with a condition classed as a disability under the Equality Act, you’re obliged to consider reasonable adjustments that will help them to return to work.

Examples of reasonable adjustments could be a phased return to work, reducing or changing duties within the role, or adjusting the working environment, e.g. investing in specialist equipment.

What is considered ‘reasonable’ will depend on the costs involved, the size and resources of your business and whether the adjustments would prevent the substantial disadvantage experienced by the employee, so it’s often necessary to seek medical guidance on a case by case basis.

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Beginning the formal absence management process

Your Sickness Absence Policy should set out the level of sickness that will prompt you to take a closer look at absence levels for any individual. To avoid discrimination, this trigger must be applied consistently. You can still apply your discretion once you have analysed the reasons for the absences.

Use return to work interviews to have an informal discussion about absence levels. If you notice that an employee is nearing or has reached the trigger point, you should flag this to them during their return to work interview.

This is a sensitive subject and this is only the informal stage so we recommend a supportive approach. You may say something like the following:

  • I’ve noticed that you have had a number of sickness absences lately- is everything okay?
  • Do you realise that it has been ‘x’ times in the past months? Have you thought about going to your GP?
  • Is everything alright with your work – is there anything you want to discuss?

Use the meeting to set targets for improvements and make sure the employee understands that if their absence continues without improvement, you will need to consider instigating the formal Sickness Absence Policy.

It’s not uncommon to see attendance levels improve if you raise concerns with an employee informally, before needing to start the formal stages of the Sickness Absence Policy.

You should be mindful that an employee may have a medical condition that you didn’t know about that may amount to a disability. If this comes to light during a return to work conversation you will need to find out more about their condition and the impact it has on their attendance before you proceed to the formal stage of the procedure and certainly before you consider issuing a warning.

Start the formal process

If your employee’s absences have reached an unacceptable level and insufficient improvement has been made after an informal discussion, then you’ll need to start a formal process.

Ensure you have an accurate and thorough record of the employee’s absence and reasons given, along with any warnings previously issued.

1. Invite the employee to a Stage 1 meeting

The Stage 1 meeting should be used to notify the employee that you are starting a formal process because of continued absence above an acceptable level.

Invite the employee to this meeting by letter, giving reasonable notice – we recommend a minimum of 2 working days.

This letter should advise them of their right to be accompanied by a trade union representative or a work colleague. It will also outline your concerns regarding absence, and enclose or refer to any evidence that you will be discussing in the meeting including a copy of your company’s Sickness Policy Procedure.

2. Hold a Stage 1 meeting

The employee’s manager should lead the meeting.

As it can be difficult taking notes and asking questions at the same time you might find it helpful to have a note-taker present. It can also be useful for you to have someone there for moral support and to act as a witness as to what was said by both parties.

It’s a good idea to think in advance about the precise wording you’ll use for the formal elements of the meeting.

Stage 1 Meeting format:

1. At the start of the meeting outline the issue and reason for the meeting.

2. Ask the employee if they understand why they have been called to the meeting, and explain the impact their sickness levels are having on the business and other colleagues who are picking up work.

3. If the employee is not accompanied, check whether they have had the letter explaining their right to be accompanied. It is important to document that this question has been asked in case they raise it at a later stage that they were not given the opportunity to be supported by a representative.

4. Refer to the dates/periods of absence and the reasons for the absence and discuss measures that you already have put in place and any support given.

5. Ask if there is anything else that the business could do to help improve attendance.

6. Try and put the onus on the employee to identify ways they can improve their attendance levels themselves. Explore whether any reasonable adjustments can be made to the role to help remove any barriers to meeting the required standards.

7. Ask questions to understand whether there are any underlying health conditions to ensure you are meeting your employer obligations under the Equality Act in making any ‘reasonable adjustments’.

8. Refer to any previous meetings and any improvements that have been made (if any).

9. Once you feel you have been through all the evidence, ask the employee if they have anything further to add before you make a decision.

10. Adjourn the meeting. Take yourself to another room or alternatively, you can ask the employee to leave the room you are in. Consider everything that has been said and decide whether you want to issue the First Written Warning. (It might be important later to show that you genuinely considered all the evidence before issuing a warning, rather than it already being a ‘done deal’; stopping the meeting to review the evidence is a good sign that you have given this due consideration.)

11. Call the employee back into the room and notify them of your decision, and their right of appeal. Make sure that you set clear realistic and measurable targets and confirm the monitoring period (we recommend 3 months) and the next meeting date in which you will review their performance.

3. Confirm the outcome in writing

It’s important to confirm the outcome of the meeting in writing so both you and the employee know what the expectations are.

4. Stage 2 meeting

If things don’t improve it may be necessary to hold a Second Stage Sickness Absence Meeting.

Follow the same formal process as for the Stage 1 meeting, reviewing the absences that have occurred since the last review meeting.

You should also discuss the actions that were agreed in the previous meeting and the level of warning issued at that time.

The outcome of this Stage 2 meeting could be a Final Written Warning, with notice that failure to improve attendance could result in dismissal.

If things have improved and you don’t require a Stage 2 meeting, we suggest that you hold an informal meeting to recognise the improvement.

5. Stage 3 meeting

Again, if things don’t improve, it may be necessary to hold a Final Sickness Absence Meeting.

This meeting is the last meeting in the process of dealing with someone that has a continued poor sickness level that cannot be sustained by the business. This meeting should follow the same formal process as before and will include reviewing the meetings that have already taken place as well as the continued sickness absence levels.

If you issued a Final Written Warning in the Stage 2 meeting and attendance has not improved, then dismissing the employee could be considered as an outcome of this meeting.

Do you really need to go through all these stages?

It might seem like a lot of steps, but it’s vital you follow a fair process when dealing with any sickness absence before getting to the stage when an employee’s employment is at risk. If the employee takes you to a tribunal, being able to demonstrate that you have followed a fair process will be crucial evidence in your favour.

Following a formal absence management process has another important benefit – it very often solves the problem. It’s rare that employers get to dismissal stage. In the majority of cases, either the employee resigns or absence improves.

The content of this blog is for general information only. Please don’t rely on it as legal or other professional advice as that is not what we intend. You can find more detail on this in our Terms of Website Use. If you require professional advice, please get in touch.

Get HR Support

While the basic steps in managing employee absence remain the same from business to business, there’s always a certain amount of fine-tuning needed to ensure your process fits your business needs. Our HR consultants can help you to create a sickness absence policy that’s tailored to your requirements and compliant with UK employment law.

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