Practical tips on how to manage sickness absence

November 30, 2016

Managing sickness absence can be a thankless task for any manager or HR professional.  This article gives practical tips based on our experience as a team advising on these issues.

  1. Adopt a consistent approach to return to work interviews
  • Most employers are pretty good at monitoring absence, at least in terms of keeping a record of it. If you don’t have a system in place FW Connect can help (click here for details: http://www.hrlaw.co.uk/site/access-fw-connect/) Many also have a policy of conducting return to work interviews or interviews when absence reaches a certain level.  However, often these policies are not consistently applied – and yet it’s the prospect of a return to work interview that can be a very effective deterrent for those contemplating a “duvet day” on a Monday or Friday.
  • Having a policy of a holding a meeting with an employee when their absence reaches a certain level can also help you take steps early on to address any underlying issues.
  1. Consider attendance incentives
  • Some employers provide incentives for employees to have good attendance levels.  These can take the form of financial incentives, such as a modest quarterly bonus of £50 or £100 if they have a 100% attendance that quarter other than for holidays.  Other employers provide non-financial benefits such as the chance to leave early or be entered into a prize draw. 
  • This practice really divides opinion and is not right for every organisation but it can mean that those contemplating “throwing a sickie” think twice about doing so.
  1. Get the most out of Occupational Health providers’ reports
  • To get the most out of an Occupational Health provider’s report it’s essential to provide OH with as much information as possible about the role and the nature of the work.
  • Is it fast-paced?  Is it sedentary?  Does it entail lots of phone calls or typing?  Does it require team-work or is it more solitary in nature?  Does it require long periods of concentration?  Unless the OH provider knows your business well and the particular type of work the individual does, you really need to give them a clear picture.
  • You also need to ask them specific questions tailored to the individual’s situation, not a vague “can you advise us on their condition or their ability to work?”
  • If you think the individual has gone off sick to avoid a difficult workplace meeting, such as disciplinary or redundancy meeting, it can be helpful to refer the Occupational Health provider to the 2012 guidance from the Royal College of Physicians.  The gist of this guidance is that it is generally in the employee’s best interests to get a “difficult” workplace meeting over with, even if it is a stressful and unpleasant experience.
  1. Maintain regular contact with the employee
  • Often managers shy away from this because it’s outside their comfort zone and they’re busy with their day to day work.  It’s easier to ignore an issue if you don’t have a physical reminder in the form of the employee in the office. 
  • Sometimes employees resist contact when they’re off sick.  The key is to explain that, as a responsible employer, you need to maintain contact with them to help facilitate their return to work.  But you can try to agree the form and timing of that contact, so they don’t get alarmed by being contacted out of the blue.
  1. Be clear about sick pay arrangements
  • It’s amazing how much running out of sick pay can help focus the minds of employees who are stringing out their absence beyond the point when they’re actually fit to return.
  1. Keep a paper trail – of the right kind
  • This is particularly important when it comes to managing sickness absence.  First of all, it enables you to keep track and stay on top of the situation.  Secondly, it gives you a record that you can point to if your handling of the situation is ever criticised in a Tribunal claim.
  • You want to keep a record of all interactions with the employee and all attempts to contact them and a record of the effect, if any, that their absence is having on the business.
  • Ultimately, when it comes to defending a Tribunal claim, whether it’s an unfair dismissal claim or some form of disability discrimination claim, whilst the precise legal tests vary, the key thing you need to be able to do is show that you acted reasonably in taking the steps you did.

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