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Handling staff absence effectively

Staff sickness can be highly disruptive to a school.  It’s often unpredictable, making it difficult to organise cover, which is often done by other members of staff who take up the strain to fill-in for their absent colleague.

Of course, most absences are for genuine reasons and no one would want someone who was ill to come into work.  However, it’s important that absence is managed effectively by the school not least to support the unwell employee.

Failure to manage absence levels can result in discontent amongst those who have to cover for a persistent absentee. It can also result in an absence culture developing with others taking so called “duvet days”: calling in sick when otherwise they would have come into work.

Capability is a fair reason for dismissal

There’s a popular misconception that if an individual is off sick and their absence is covered by a GP certificate there is little that can be done and the school has to effectively just ‘put up with it’.  The reality is that the school is paying someone to carry out a role.  If an individual has persistently poor attendance or has been off sick for an extended period then consideration should be given as to whether the individual has the capability to carry out that role.  Lack of capability, with reference to health, is a potentially fair reason for dismissal under s.98 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

That’s not to say that the absence isn’t genuine but ultimately every post in the school plays a crucial role in helping the school to run effectively.  At some point continued or persistent absence becomes unsustainable and the school has to look at terminating the employment relationship.

Act reasonably and follow the school’s managing absence policy

Of course, the school needs to act reasonably in its approach and the emphasis should be on supporting the individual back to work.

The first step to managing absence is for the Headteacher to familiarise themselves with the school’s managing absence policy.  These typically feature absence triggers which detail the steps to take when a member of staff has been off for so many days.

Invite the employee to an absence meeting

Most absence policies advise you to arrange a first formal absence meeting once the individual has hit a sickness trigger.   Again, another popular misconception is that you can’t meet with someone who’s on sick leave and that you have to wait for them to return to work.  This could be a very long time if someone was on long term sick leave.

The absence meeting would be arranged by way of a formal written invitation.  Whilst there is not a statutory right to be accompanied by a fellow colleague or trade union representative, it’s good practice to allow the individual to be accompanied for support.  The invite letter would usually state that if the individual felt that they were too unwell to attend they could submit a written statement or have their representative attend in their place.  The letter may also notify the employee that if they failed to attend without good reason then the meeting might take place in their absence.

The first absence meeting

At the first absence meeting, the Headteacher would want to find out how the employee was doing, what the cause of their condition was, if they were receiving any treatment and the likely return date.  The employee should also be given a copy of the school’s managing absence policy so they can see the procedure that’s being followed.  If their condition is stress related in any way then the completion of a stress risk assessment should be considered. Depending on the reason for the absence, an occupational health referral could be made to gain a better understanding of the condition, the time frame involved and details on how you can support them.

It’s important to minute all formal meetings and to provide the employee with a copy of these minutes for future reference.

The second absence meeting

If the policy allows it, I would always recommend organising the date for a second absence meeting at this time. This is usually 6-12 weeks from the first meeting and is essentially a follow-up meeting.  If the absence levels have improved then this can be acknowledged during the meeting.  If the employee is still absent, their progress can be reviewed and any Occupational Health information discussed.  At this stage, and if the policy allows it,  the individual should be informed that if their absence continues to be unsustainable then consideration may have to be given to holding a capability hearing, an outcome of which could be their dismissal on the grounds of ill health.

Hold a capability hearing

Once the second absence meeting has taken place, most policies will allow you to convene a capability hearing. This should not be an automatic progression and much will depend on the circumstances of each case.    Before convening a hearing, the latest medical advice should be obtained, any reasonable adjustments including alternative employment should have been considered, and thought given as to whether ill health retirement might be an appropriate avenue to explore. Once all options and alternatives have been explored, dismissal could now be an appropriate action to take as an outcome of this meeting.

A third absence meeting could be organised as an alternative, especially if the long term prognosis was still uncertain or if further medical information needs to be obtained.

Hopefully this article has put to bed some common myths about managing staff absence.  It’s important that sickness trigger points within the school’s policy are consistently acted upon and that those with high absence levels are regularly met with.   One interesting observation I’ve noticed is that when a school consistently starts to follow its policy, absence levels across the school start to improve.

If you need support in handling an absence case then don’t hesitate to contact us on 01884 841 539.