Managing Absence & Sick Leave
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It’s inevitable—everybody gets sick. But, where do you draw the line between what’s normal and what’s problematic?
Each year, UK organisations lose a median of £550+ per employee to paid sick leave. Recurring and habitual absence can add up to significant costs, not to mention, gravely impact daily operations and workplace morale.
To prevent needless absence, it’s important to have an effective policy in place that offers support to employees while maintaining accountability.
Below we’ve outlined everything you need to know about managing sick leave in the UK.
Identifying Recurring Sick Leave
Nobody enjoys being sick. But when the annual office bug makes its rounds, paid sick leave can be a huge support for employees.
Occasional illness is normal and should be anticipated by employers. However, if employees start to abuse sick leave privileges, it can take a significant toll on your organisation.
In the UK, employees take an average of 6.9 days of sick leave per year. This statistic varies between the private and public sectors, and it may or may not reflect your company’s norm.
In order to minimise needless absence and promote accountability, it’s essential for employers to record sick leave data and identify problems.
The first step in sick leave management is recording data. According to CIPD 2015, 87% of UK organisations keep attendance records for the purpose of identifying recurring problems and taking action.
When an employee has to miss a day of work, it’s important to record both the date and reason for the absence. This can help you identify trends and determine whether you need to conduct an attendance review.
Keep in mind, employee sick leave records are considered sensitive personal information in the UK. When recording and sharing this data, make sure you’re abiding by the Data Protection Act of 2018.
Long-Term vs Short-Term Absence: Understanding the Problem
In some cases, recurring sick leave could be a sign of an underlying problem.
If an employee is absent for a week or more, employers should ask them to provide a Statement of Fitness for Work (also called “fit notes”) from a certified professional. This can help you better understand the nature of the illness and its likely duration.
If the sick leave is due to a long-term medical condition, employers should determine whether reasonable adjustments can be made to prevent future absence. Long-term disability may also be a factor at this point, and it is important that you maintain contact with your employee to offer support and secure a smooth return to work as soon as possible.
Short-term and intermittent absence can also be linked to a medical condition. If you have an employee who is habitually requesting leave, encourage them to open up about any medical conditions they may be facing. Understanding their needs early on can help you offer support, manage expectations, and make reasonable adjustments.
If, on the other hand, you suspect employees are abusing sick leave privileges, it may be time to apply and/or re-evaluate your company’s policy and procedures.
Managing Employee Sick Leave
As stated above, the most important thing in employee sick leave management is maintaining records. However, there are a few more steps that need to be taken in order to ensure accountability and set clear expectations.
Below we’ve outlined some of the key steps to efficient sick leave management that can help your organisation prevent needless absences.
1. Have a Clear Sick Leave Policy
The first step to sick leave management is having a clear policy in place.
This policy should outline the number of paid sick days employees are entitled to, the possibility of unpaid sick leave and sabbaticals, attendance expectations, and the procedure to request or notify sick leave.
Section 1 of The Employment Rights Act requires employers to state their terms and conditions regarding employee incapacity to work due to illness or injury, and to outline sick pay provisions.
Some things that should be outlined in the sick leave policy, include:
- Notification of absence: who and when should the employee notify when they are unable to work
- Proof of incapacity: what type of proof of incapacity should the employee present (for example, a self-certificate or doctor’s Fit Notes)
- Employer rights to medical records or additional medical consultation with the employee’s consent
- Sick pay provisions: the number of paid sick days and unpaid sick days allotted to the employee.
- Reasonable adjustments: for example, is it possible for the employee to work from home or remotely?
- Dismissal consideration and procedures: an outline of when the employer could consider dismissal on the grounds of excessive absence/long-term incapacitation, plus a provision for appeals.
A clear sick leave policy will make it easier for both employers and employees to know their rights and expectations.
2. Establish a Procedure for Requesting Sick Leave
In order to maintain accountability, it is important to have a clear procedure for requesting sick leave. In most companies, there will be a chain of command that employees can notify when ill. Some companies require notification by phone, while others accept written or electronic notification.
In addition to notifying the proper channels, employees should also provide proof of illness/incapacitation upon their return to work. If the absence is a week or less, a self-certification form may suffice. However, if the absence is a week or longer, employers should request a note from a doctor or a Statement of Fitness to Work.
In April 2010, Fit Notes were created as a way for general practitioners to advise patients on ways to get back to work after recovering from an illness. This new procedure has replaced the old method that simply stated whether a patient was “fit” or “unfit” to work. For more information on fit notes, visit https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/fit-note
As stated previously, keeping all this information on record can help you identify trends in employee absence and determine whether an attendance review is necessary.
3. Determine Sick Pay Provisions
Most companies offer employees a set number of paid sick days per year. However, what happens if they exceed their allotment? Some organisations allow employees to use holiday/vacation benefits to cover additional needed sick leave. Other organisations allow employees to take a set number of unpaid sick days after they’ve used their sick leave benefits.
Allowing employees to work remotely or from home can also help alleviate some of the burdens of excessive sick leave for both employees and employers.
Whatever policy your company decides on, it’s important to have these provisions clearly outlined in order to create a legal precedent.
4. Understand Employer Rights to Medical Records and Proof of Incapacitation
One of the most common questions when it comes to employee sick leave management is, “Does the employer have the right to require medical evidence?”
The answer to this question is: yes—with consent from the employee.
When creating your sick leave policy, it is important to require proof of illness/incapacitation, and to set a provision that allows employers to further request medical records with the employee’s consent.
As stated previously, medical records and sick leave data are considered sensitive personal information, and therefore are protected by the Data Protection Act 2018.
In order to request medical records from an employee’s GP, the employee must give their consent in accordance with the Access to Personal Files and Medical Reports (Northern Ireland) Order of 1991.
Employees must be notified in written form for employers to request and obtain a medical record.
More information and a sample of a Medical Records Request Consent Form can be found here.
In addition, employers have the right to obtain medical advice from a professional to better understand the condition their employee is facing. This can help you determine the extent to which their ailment will affect their work and attendance.
5. Maintaining Contact and Offering Support
Maintaining contact with absent employees can help build a stronger working relationship while giving you a better idea of when they will be able to return to work. In addition, staying in contact with absent employees promotes accountability and prevents excessive leave.
The level of communication will vary depending on the size of your organisation and the nature of the illness, but most communication can be conducted via telephone and email.
When speaking with your absent employee, it is important that you discuss a timeline of when they will be able to return to work. Developing a return to work plan gives the employee an opportunity to recover, while giving the employer a better understanding of their length of absence.
Employers must be able to balance concern for the employee with their desire to help them return to work. Refrain from being intrusive or overbearing, as this could lead to allegations of harassment. However, maintaining open communication is key to ensuring the employee feels appreciated and encouraged to return to work.
Return to Work Interviews: One of the most effective tools for short-term sick leave management are return to work interviews. Line managers can use return to work interviews as an opportunity to understand the absent staff member’s situation, agree on a plan to help them return to work, and offer appropriate support/accommodations.
Return to work interviews are also a great opportunity to open a dialogue in which employees feel comfortable sharing any underlying issues that could affect their workplace abilities in the future.
For more information on return to work interviews and how to prepare for one, you can consult the ACAS Guide Guide here.
Absence Review: Another way to ensure accountability is through absence reviews. If an employee’s habitual absence starts to become problematic, the employer should conduct an absence review upon their return. During this time, the employer can issue a warning or take disciplinary action if the leave is considered excessive and unacceptable.
6. Absence Prevention
Each year, about 140 million working days and £9 billion are lost to employee sick leave.
While occasional absence is to be expected, employers must prevent excessive sick leave by eliminating temptation and ensuring that a clear process of accountability is in place.
As already discussed, some of the most effective ways to deter needless absence include:
- implementing a clear policy
- requiring employees to provide proof of illness/incapacitation
- maintaining regular communication with employees
- conducting return to work interviews and absence reviews
- recording all data
If you still suspect your company’s sick leave policy is being abused, it may be time to reconsider the terms and conditions. For example, some companies allot fewer paid sick leave days in order to prevent unnecessary absence.
Alternatively, some companies identify solutions to help employees continue their workplace duties remotely. For example, depending on the circumstances, employees may be able to work from home or from the hospital. These reasonable adjustments can be an efficient solution for both employers and employees.
Further, better understanding of the reason for absence can also help prevent future leave. For example, are many of your employees falling sick at work? If so, investing in workplace sanitation and encouraging regular checkups could prevent illness and minimise the need for time off.
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Important Information on Disability Discrimination
Studies show that about 2/3 of employee absence is short-term. However, some employees may experience long-term illnesses that could require some sort of disability adjustment.
In accordance with the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995, employers must take action to make reasonable adjustments and prevent disabled employees from being at a disadvantage compared to non-disabled workers. This can include making physical changes to your premises or offering additional resources to the employee that allow them to continue regular work duties.
Some examples of reasonable adjustments that employers could be required to make include:
- Physical changes to your premises: including the installation of wheelchair ramps and other accessibility features
- Reallocating certain duties to other team members
- Transferring the disabled employee into another position within the organisation that better matches their capabilities
- Adjusting their working hours (possibly transitioning them into a part-time position, allowing them to flex their hours, or implementing a phased return to work plan)
- Acquiring more accessible equipment
- Offering additional assistance, mentoring, or training
These are just some of the steps that employers may be legally required to take in order to provide reasonable adjustments for staff with disabilities.
Employee Dismissal: Can an Employer Dismiss an Employee Who Is Unable to Work as a Result of Sickness?
If an employee’s recurring absence becomes so problematic that it interferes with daily business operations, you may find yourself considering dismissal.
Dismissal on the grounds of illness/incapacity to work is possible. However, it’s important that you tread carefully and follow the proper protocol to prevent allegations of unjust dismissal or discrimination.
- The first thing you will need to do is obtain medical evidence and consultation that proves the employee is unfit to work or incapable of carrying out their assigned duties.
- Before taking any decision on dismissal, the employer must fully consult with the employee and follow a fair capability procedure (see the link to the ACAS Guide below).
- Following the proper procedure and considering all reasonable adjustments, the employer must provide written notice to the employee, outlining the reason for the dismissal they are considering and arranging a meeting to discuss the issues. This must give the employee an opportunity to explore whether things may improve and/or reasonable adjustments could be made to avoid dismissal. The employee has the right to be accompanied to the meeting by a colleague or a union representative.
- The employer must show evidence that they made reasonable accommodation for any disability and that it would be unreasonable to hold the employee’s position any longer, as it was costing the organisation excessive resources.
- After meeting in person, the employer must send another written notice explaining the final dismissal decision, the reason for it, the effective date of the dismissal and the right of the employee to appeal.
For more information on employee dismissal related to sickness, you can consult the ACAS Guide to Discipline & Grievance.
Can an Employee Be Dismissed While On Sick Leave?
Yes. Employees can be dismissed if their ability to perform their job is impacted by the illness. If they have been an employee at your company for over two years, the correct disciplinary and dismissal processes must be followed (usually the Acas code) before the decision to dismiss is made.
If the employee’s illness becomes a long-term sickness, it may count as a disability. This means the processes will be different, e.g. the employer must make reasonable adjustments for the employee to remain at the company (such as allowing them to work from home). If reasonable adjustments are not made to allow the employee to carry out their job and you decide to dismiss them, they can make a legal claim for unfair dismissal.
Training HR and Line Managers for Efficient Sick Leave Management
Your organisation’s human resources department plays a key role in preventing excessive absence. Line managers can work directly with employees who are facing short-term or long-term conditions to determine the nature and extent of their leave, help them understand their benefits, offer occupational health services, and develop a return to work plan that is reasonable for both parties. They are also responsible for keeping records in order to identify problems and find proactive solutions.
A well-trained HR department will be able to work through complex cases to prevent disability discrimination and implement the proper disciplinary actions when necessary.
With proper training, your HR department and Line Managers can be a major asset to your organisation.
Efficient absence management is all about balance. On the one hand, employers must prevent needless absence that could add up to significant costs. On the other hand, they should offer appropriate support and understanding to employees when they are ill.
Nobody enjoys being sick, and with the majority of cases, employees will only take sick leave when it is needed. In these cases, offering support is the best way to encourage them to come back to work as soon as possible.
With a clear sick leave policy in place, and a well-trained HR team, any employer can learn how to effectively manage employee sick leave.
These are just a few of the issues that can arise and the answers to most will turn on the particular facts of the case. Helix law are experienced in giving practical advice and assistance to SMEs. Many clients chose to opt for our monthly retainer and we work with them as their outsourced HR Department.
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