19th July 2017

Top ten tips on managing sickness absence

Article by Linda Wilson | Employment

For some smaller employers dealing with sickness absence is stepping into unknown territory.   When dealing with this for the first time, employers can feel daunted about what they should and should not do.

Whilst every case is different and may require its own specialist approach, we have set out below some tips to bear in mind when dealing with sickness absence in your workplace.

1. What are your rules?

It may be as an employer you already have a policy on sickness absence but if you do not, what are the rules when someone in your organisation is absent through sickness?

 It is important to consider who employees should report to and by when.   Do you accept text messages, emails or do they need to phone and speak to a certain supervisor? Rules on sickness absence do not have to be long winded and should be concise and clear.


2. Communicate the rules!

It is one thing to have clear, concise rules but it is another to actually communicate them to the people it applies to.   It is surprising how many times employers have wonderfully crafted handbooks which are either not accessible or not seen by the employees.

Rules on sickness absence can be included in the contract of employment under a clause dealing with sickness absence to ensure that the employee has seen them.  Not all rules and policies should be in the contract of employment, but brief rules on sickness absence can be included for ease.

3. Communicate with your employee about their sickness absence

Perhaps it is down to the British “stiff upper lip” but actually talking to an employee about their sickness absence seems to be something that managers find difficult to do.  It is important to ask how your employees are, not only from the position of being a caring employer but also to ensure they know that they are being held accountable when they do not turn up to work.  It is a careful balancing act to ensure that you are sensitive about their recent sickness, but also being firm and ensuring that the rules are complied with.

4. Keep a paper trail

It is important to keep a paper trail of any sickness absence, not only to monitor absence levels but also so you have a clear record if an issue arises. Employees can self certify for the first 7 days, and after that you can request a fit note from their doctor.

Be aware that you will be dealing with sensitive personal data when asking for details about an employee’s health. Therefore, you need to deal with that in accordance with any data protection legislation.

5. Consistent treatment

This not only applies to the employee being treated consistently by different managers within the organisation, which is less of a problem in smaller businesses, but also means that you treat different employees consistently.   Each employee will have their own specific circumstances but broadly the business needs to be treating all employees the same with regard to sickness absence.  This then avoids accusations of unfair treatment or discrimination.

6. Absent but still employed

It is important to remember that whilst employees are sick they are still your employees.   You still owe them a duty of trust and confidence and they still owe you the same.  They still need to comply with their contract of employment.   If issues over their conduct arise whilst still off sick, you need to raise these with them. How and when you do this does depend on the circumstances

7. Sick pay

As a small business you need to decide what you are going to pay your employees whilst they are off sick.   This will usually either be the basic statutory sick pay or something in addition to this.   Small employers often find paying sick pay at the full rate of pay is too much of a burden.  However, some employers retain a discretion to pay full pay for exceptional circumstances.  Your contracts can set out what the rules are around sick pay.

8. Returning to work

Some organisations have return to work interviews even if someone has only been absent for one day as it allegedly deters some sickness absence.  Where there are longer term absences, return to work meetings and return to work plans may be a necessity to ensure a productive and safe return to work for the employee.

9. Sensitive approach

It is always important when dealing with sickness absence to be sensitive but firm.   It is important that managers do not make assumptions about illnesses, whether physical or mental.   There should be consultation with an employee, and investigations if needed, before decisions are made on issues arising from sickness absence.

10. Expert medical advice

For some sickness absence issues, often longer term absences, it is often advisable to seek independent medical advice on an employee’s health situation to decide on their diagnosis and prognosis to assist with any return to work.  Similarly, there often comes a point where an organisation may need to take specialist employment law advice to ensure they are dealing with any sickness issue fairly. If you need any further advice on the above, please contact us.

N.B. Please note that the above information is a guide only and does not constitute legal advice. We recommend seeking specialist legal advice on your own particular circumstances