There are some employees who you might be glad to see less of. When it comes to managing their unplanned absence, however, you would probably prefer they were around. Monitoring and managing unplanned absence is a huge problem for businesses of all size and type. Not only does cover need to be arranged at short notice, putting pressure on colleagues, but the financial downside can be huge.

It therefore makes good sense all round for businesses to adopt policies and procedures which encourage good attendance and which enable the employer to separate the slackers and skivers from those who are genuinely unwell or those properly exercising their right to time off for dependants. Whilst engaging a feng shui expert to improve the office environment is one modern approach, some of the more effective tools to consider are:


Implementing written polices dealing with sickness and absence reporting which include mandatory return to work interviews for unplanned absences. The prospect of a face to face meeting may well discourage or flush out “sickies” and also enables the employer to identify where there genuinely is a longer term health or domestic issue and how to manage it.

Bradford Factor

The Bradford formula is used by employers to measure an employee’s irregularity of attendance. Employees are given a score according to the number of spells of absence they have had in a given period and the number of occasions on which they have been sick. Employees who have taken a number of individual days off will have a far higher score than those who have had a number of days off during one spell, for example because they have had an operation. The Bradford formula targets employees who frequently have the odd day off sick. Those with high scores should be required to meet with HR to try and establish the reasons for their absences and take appropriate action where necessary. In conjunction you might monitor the frequency with which a short bout of sickness or family emergency occurs on a Monday or Friday, or even add this to the formula, often a telling sign.

Contractual sick pay

Adopting a sickness policy which is not over generous. It is amazing how many employees return to work when their sick pay runs out. A balance needs to be struck between support for those who are genuinely ill or have real family emergencies and those who are or do not. Using discretionary payments may seem superficially attractive, but there are pitfalls, especially if the discretion is not exercised consistently: a bigger risk where decisions are taken by different managers. One idea is to combine a policy of paying the statutory minimum or not much above it with an attendance bonus to reward those who take little time off, provided this does not entail possible discrimination against those in protected groups such as those with disabilities, who are pregnant or have childcare responsibilities. If adopting this type of sickness policy entails a change to current contractual policies, these would need to be planned through a proper consultation process.


Consider using your disciplinary process in serious cases of genuine unplanned absence. Disciplinary action should generally be a last resort but can act as a deterrent. Before taking such action, an employer needs to investigate the reasons for the absence to ensure that it is not applying the procedures unfairly. Procedures should be followed correctly because if the individual is dismissed and brings a successful claim any award made by a tribunal could be increased by between 10-50% with a minimum basic award of four weeks’ pay. Whilst unauthorised absence can legitimately be treated as misconduct, some employers may take the view that trying to create an atmosphere in which employees are encouraged to attend work regularly and to enjoy doing so might be a more effective means of dealing with the general problem of absenteeism and that disciplinary procedures should be reserved for isolated and extreme cases.


Medical examinations, whilst costly, are a useful tool for flushing out those who are not genuinely ill. These are most useful where employees have been signed off by their doctor for conditions such as stress or anxiety where the impact of the condition on the employee’s ability to work is unclear. A medical examination might also flush out if there is a more serious underlying problem which is the cause of the unplanned absence which might fall under the definition of a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The effectiveness of a medical examination as a means of determining possible legal risks associated with the management of an employee’s persistent or long-term absence depends largely on carefully drafted instructions being given to the doctor so the employer gets the information it needs to assess the risks.

Absenteeism will not stop unless employees see a proactive stance being taken. These are just a few ideas. If it’s not a problem now in your workplace it could easily become one. Don’t let out of sight employees go out of your mind.

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