It’s important to establish set action points for both short-term and long-term absence as both types can cause difficulties for employers. If an employee regularly takes one day off, you won’t be able to count on them being in the office when you really need them. In the case of an employee who has been off sick for a few months, you need to know if they are likely to return in the foreseeable future and if there is anything that you can do to facilitate a return to work.
Establishing an absence monitoring culture
The first thing to do is introduce an automatic return to work interview after any period of sickness, even if it was just for one day. This should be regarded as the first step in the absence management process, where all employees are asked about their absence and how they are feeling. This gives the message that you are supportive but are also taking note of the absence on your records.
Beyond that, you will need to choose a certain number of stages at which you will take action to manage absence. Some examples are:
- 3 periods of sickness absence within six months will result in an absence review meeting being held.
- Any number of absences that establish a set pattern of absence (eg, Mondays, Fridays, before or after holidays) will result in an absence review meeting.
- Where an employee submits GP fit notes that cover a period of 4 weeks or more, they will be asked to attend an absence review meeting to allow the employer to obtain more information on the condition and likely return to work. This may result in the employee being asked to give permission for their GP to be contacted or to attend an occupational health appointment.
- For periods of absence that last 8 weeks or more, the employee will be referred to occupational health to establish further information about the condition and a return to work in the foreseeable future.
- If an employee is absent from work for more than 4 months, the employer will obtain up-to-date medical information with a view to establishing the employee’s fitness to return to work and likelihood of resuming their duties in the foreseeable duties. This may include making reasonable adjustments where required.
These are just some examples of action trigger points that you can use to manage absence. You may also stipluate that employees will receive a warning once they reach a specific trigger point.
Using the absence stages
By adopting these triggers, you will treat employees consistently and follow the correct procedure in different scenarios. For example, an employee who has a poor record of short-term absences and has no underlying health condition may be warned that failure to improve their attendance will result in disciplinary action being taken. However, you can fairly manage an employee who has a problematic health condition by meeting with them and getting medical information from their GP or from occupational health. The goal in the latter case is to find ways to support the employee’s return to work but, if this proves to be impossible, you will have the evidence you need to operate the capability process and dismiss the employee for reasons of ill health.
If an employee is off sick due to disability, you can still support and manage their absence but you must take account of the additional obligations you face, such as making reasonable adjustments to the workplace to allow the employee to return to work.
Ensuring employees understand
There are two ways that you need to explain the new absence stages. Firstly, you must take time to communicate them at the point of introduction, including why they are important. It’s essential that you emphasise that the stages are supportive and are intended to focus on the health and wellbeing of employees. However, you must also get the message across that good attendance is important to the success of the business.
Secondly, you should repeat this information on an individual basis as you begin to implement the absence triggers. Employees can think that a procedure is fine in principle and then object on the basis that they’re sick and that it’s unfair if the process is applied to them in practice. By reinforcing the messages of fairness and consistency, the absence management process will become easier to follow, even in difficult situations where a return to work looks unlikely.
Adopting triggers and targets has been proven to reduce absence levels overall.
For more information on managing sickness absence, take a read of the following articles: