According to the 2007 Absence Management Annual Survey Report of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the average level of employee absence in a year is 3.7% of working time (i.e., 8.4 days per employee per year). 

The average cost of absence was found to be £659 per employee per year.  These facts, coupled with the Employment Tribunal and Employment Appeal Tribunal statistics for the period 1 April 2006 to 31 March 2007, highlight the increasing importance for employers of managing sickness absence in the workplace and being aware of the potential pitfalls.  The tribunal statistics showed that the number of claims accepted by the tribunals for unfair dismissal increased to 44,491 (from 41,382 in the previous year) and claims for disability discrimination increased to 5,533 (from 4,585 in the previous year) (although only a proportion of those cases involved sickness absence). 

Sickness absence can take different forms and the policies and procedures applied in each case will need to take account of this.  It can be short-term or long-term, disability-related or maternity-related sickness absence.  Most sickness absences are short-term and the CIPD survey found that the main cause of short-term absence is minor illness, followed by back pain, musculo-skeletal injuries, home and family responsibilities, and stress.

Whatever the reason for sickness absence or its duration, it is important for employers to have procedures in place which strike a balance between the operational needs of the business and the responsibility towards employees to be sympathetic and supportive during times of ill-health.  Having proper and consistently applied procedures would ultimately result, not only in a happier workforce who feel valued and supported, but also in reduced risk to employers of claims by employees for discrimination or unfair dismissal (for example).  

Dealing with sickness absence

Here are some practical considerations to take into account when dealing with sickness absence:

  • Investigate the cause and likely length of the absence.  Employers should establish the reason for absence so as to rule out or deal with any work-related cause or trigger, and consider whether an individual is likely to return to work in the near future.  If dealing with short-term intermittent absence, the fact that an employee’s attendance is a cause for concern (and the reasons for that concern) should be drawn to their attention at an informal interview – this should be done before a formal warning (or other disciplinary sanction) is issued;
  • Keep in contact with the employee (within reason – beware of claims of harassment!).  This can be simply by way of telephone conversations at regular intervals (every fortnight, for example).  Employers should strike a balance between offering support and maintaining sufficient distance so that the employee does not feel pressured into coming back to work if they are not fit enough to do so.  This will be a particularly sensitive issue if the cause of the condition leading to the absence is work-related (overloading of work, or bullying by a manager or fellow colleague, for example);
  • Obtain medical evidence and consult with the employee on that evidence and before taking action on the basis of any recommendations set out in any such report.  Employees who have been absent for a long period of time should be encouraged to update their employer on any new developments in their condition.  Generally, employment contracts and sickness policies state that a medical report is to be obtained if an employee has been absent for a specified period of time and this is usually done at the expense of the employer.  Note that, once a medical report is obtained, an employer would generally be required to act in accordance with that report’s recommendations, unless there is clear evidence contradicting those recommendations.  Also, once a report is obtained, the employer should meet with the employee to discuss the report before taking any steps to implement the recommendations within it.  One positive and reasonably easy step employers can take is to consider holding the meeting at the employee’s house or at a neutral venue if they cannot attend the employer’s office.  In cases of persistent short-term absences, employers should consider whether there might be an underlying health problem;
  • Consider establishing a practice of holding “return-to-work” interviews (if such a practice is not already in existence).  However, such policies should be applied consistently so that employees do not feel “singled out”.  A “getting back to work programme” may also be developed with the employee.  Note that the CIPD survey mentioned at the start of this article found that return-to-work interviews, trigger mechanisms (for example, how many days’ absence would trigger an informal interview with the employee to discuss their attendance?) and the use of disciplinary procedures are rated as the top three most effective approaches for managing short-term absence;
  • Consider reasonable adjustments (for example, a staggered return to work, varied start and finish times, making physical adjustments to the employee’s workstation and purchasing equipment and continuing sickness pay beyond the contractual or discretionary period), or alternative employment.  Note that the duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees also applies when carrying out the exercise of managing sickness absence (by holding meetings at the employee’s house where necessary, for example).  Again, note that the CIPD survey results identified the provision of rehabilitation programmes and flexible working opportunities as two of the top three most effective approaches for managing long-term absence;
  • Consider whether the employee would be eligible for ill-health early retirement.  This would apply in circumstances of long-term absence when it seems unlikely that the employee will be able to return to work in the foreseeable future, if at all.  Whether an employee would be eligible for ill-health early retirement will be dependent on the rules of the employer’s pension scheme.  Note that this will generally require medical evidence and that the granting of the benefits will usually be at the discretion of the trustees of the pension scheme.  Employers should, therefore, avoid making any firm promises or guarantees in this respect;
  • Establish whether the employee would be entitled to benefits under a permanent health insurance (PHI) policy (if such a benefit is provided under the employee’s employment contract).  When considering the position of an employee nearing the end of their contractual sick pay entitlement, employers should review the PHI policy and consider possible eligibility in advance of considering dismissal.  If necessary, keeping the employee effectively “on the books” of the company so that they can continue to receive benefits under the PHI policy should be considered.  Employers cannot fairly dismiss an employee solely to deprive them of their benefits under a PHI scheme; and
  • Contemplate dismissal and initiate the statutory disciplinary and dismissal procedures.  Follow the statutory procedures fully and fairly (i.e. Step 1:  write a letter to the employee explaining the issues; Step 2:  hold a meeting with the employee to discuss the issues; and step 3:  conducting an appeal meeting if the employee appeals against the decision).  Note that the procedure needs to be followed whenever disciplinary action is contemplated.  It would, therefore, be need to be followed before issuing the employee with a formal warning (for unacceptable levels of attendance, for example).


Next month, we will look at pay during sickness absence….

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