All employers should be prepared to expect a certain level of sickness absence. Most employees will need to take time off work at some point due to illness or injury. An effective and fair process for managing sickness absence appropriately can reduce levels.
Sickness or Unauthorised Absence
It is important to distinguish between cases involving genuine sickness absence and unauthorised absence. Absences for reasons other than genuine sickness (or other authorised absence) can be dealt with as misconduct under an appropriate disciplinary procedure. Instances of genuine sickness absence where an employee has failed to comply with required reporting procedures can also amount to unauthorised absence and warrant potential disciplinary action.
How to Manage Employee Sickness
Many employers find management of employee sickness absence to be problematic and costly. The impact on businesses can be severe and debilitating. It is therefore essential sickness absence is actively managed otherwise the problem can fester.
Effective management of sickness should include the following:
- Written Policy or Rules – A written policy will ensure employees understand the standards required of them, giving them less opportunity to argue they were unaware of their obligations to report absence. It will also give fair warning of any procedures that could apply if absences become problematic.
- Monitor and record – It is important to set up systems to assist in obtaining an accurate picture of the levels, patterns of and reasons for sickness absences. Some smaller employers accept a certain level of sickness absence without recording it, which means once the levels or frequency become a problem they have insufficient data to back up any decisions that need to be made.
- Keep in touch – It is important to strike a balance between acceptable levels of contact to offer support and gather necessary information, and giving the employee time and space to recover without pressure. Contact guidelines can be set but should have the flexibility to take into account the nature of the condition or illness, the employee’s feelings and requests and the nature of the employee’s role and position. Additional caution is required where the absence is related to, or exacerbated by workplace stress or they have alleged workplace bullying or harassment. Employers should avoid a scenario where they have not had any contact with employees (other than submission of medical evidence) for long periods of time.
- Prevent the employee from feeling isolated – Thought should be given to whether or not to invite employees on long term sickness to work related social events, training or other employment related meetings. Sick employees should be able to obtain information relevant to their employment and the business, so consider sending written communications on changes and developments.
- Request updates on medical condition – Employees should be encouraged to update the employer on further information or changes regarding their condition. The onus is on the employer to seek information rather than the employee to provide it.
- Paper Trail – File notes of all contact meetings or telephone calls with sick employees should be retained and referred to before making any decisions.
- Return to Work Interview – ACAS recommends return to work interviews take place in all cases. However, employers should consider the administrative and management burden of this and ensure any process is capable of being applied consistently.
- Consider the need for medical advice – This may be obtained with a view to seeking a recommendation on reasonable adjustments that can be put in place or to establish a likely return to work date. In almost all cases where ill health dismissal is being contemplated, up to date expert medical advice will be an essential ingredient for a fair dismissal decision.
- Manage with a view to facilitating a return to work.
- Be mindful of discrimination – An employee with a medical condition may satisfy the definition of a disabled person within the Equality Act 2010. There is also a positive duty on employers of disabled employees to make reasonable adjustments to remove any disadvantage they suffer as a result of their disability.
- Ensure consistency – Some employers may find it useful to include trigger points at which a formal procedure will kick in, for example a certain number of occasions of absence within a 12 month period or single absences of more than a certain number of days. Written absence triggers will give a level of certainty to employees and assist managers to deal with absence consistently.
- Dismissals – Ill health capability is a potentially fair reason to dismiss an employee but it is vital to follow a full and fair procedure and avoid discrimination. Any decision to dismiss must only be made after full consideration of reasonable adjustments.
- Employees who attend work while sick may pose a health and safety risk. Employers have a duty to provide a safe working environment and must evaluate situations where they are (or should be) aware an employee is sick or on medication that may affect their ability to safely perform their duties. Where a potential issue is identified the employer should consider a temporary suspension from some/all duties pending appropriate medical advice.