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Managing short-term and long-term sickness absence

Managing short-term and long-term sickness absence

Managing sickness absence effectively can be challenging for employers, it often requires a sensitive approach coupled with a good understanding of the law and it can become difficult to create balance between supporting the employee and encouraging them back to work.

When looking at the management of sickness at work, it’s important to first understand the different approaches required for managing short-term and long-term sickness absence. We’ll recap these here.

Reducing frequent short-term sickness absence

When considering short-term absence, a common misconception when carrying out absence review meetings is that the employer does not believe the employee has genuinely been ill. In reality the issue is not whether or not the individual was genuinely sick, but the fact that their short-term, frequent absence, causes a disruption to the business.

Why your Attendance Management Procedure should suit your organisation

When setting out your attendance management procedure it’s important to consider the nature of your organisation and your culture. If you’re employing professionals working in knowledge-based roles, it may be that you’re not too concerned about two or three days of absence, providing that deadlines are met. However, if you have a production line and an employee has a few days of absence, this can result in a direct cost to the business, for example if you have to bring in agency workers or move staff around in order to cover the shift. Therefore, it would be normal for different organisations to have different expectations of what is an acceptable level of absence and the procedure should reflect this.

In order to effectively manage short term absence, it’s firstly important to have procedures in place allowing you to consistently manage attendance, and which ensure employees are aware of what is considered unacceptable in terms of their level of attendance. Even if you’re a small business with just a few employees, having an attendance management policy in place which sets out clear trigger points enables you to manage absence proactively when an employee’s absence reaches an unacceptable level.

How do procedures help you reduce frequent short-term absence?

The implementation of a procedure with clear absence trigger points for employees has been proven to reduce frequent short-term sickness absence levels.

The aim of absence policies and procedures is to notify employees when their level of short-term absence is becoming a problem with the aim of improving attendance as a result. However, if their attendance doesn’t improve, this could lead to further trigger stages being reached and eventually a dismissal taking place.

A key factor to consider when an individual reaches one of the triggers is whether or not there is an underlying medical condition which could lead to the short-term frequent absences. Where this is the case, this should be approached as if it were a capability issue.

Managing long-term sickness absence

Managing long-term absence requires a different approach and the key question to focus on is how long the employee is likely to remain off work, as opposed to punishing them for the length of time they have been off. Often managers will want to understand when it is fair to dismiss someone, i.e. how long does someone need to be absent before you can dismiss them. Unfortunately the answer is not straight forward as it will always depend on the circumstances.

What is considered reasonable?

Rather than thinking about how long the individual has been away from work, managers should be asking when the employee is likely to return and whether or not it’s reasonable to wait that long. That said, the length of time an individual has been absent is still relevant as this could be a good indication of whether or not someone is likely to return in future. If someone has been absent for six months for example, that could be a good indication that they are going to continue with a level of absence because they may have a more serious underlying condition.

The next thing to consider is the impact that the absence has on the business. If you have reached a stage where you are considering dismissing an employee, you will need to be able to demonstrate why the company cannot cope with that level of absence anymore and what the impact is of this person not being there. A tribunal would want to understand,for example, is there an expense being incurred or is there a disruption to the level of service the company would usually provide. Being able to demonstrate these things would strengthen an employer’s decision to dismiss as they can demonstrate that it was really not possible to wait any longer.

Making informed decisions when managing short-term and long-term sickness absence

The final key point to handling frequent short-term and long-term sickness absence is that employers should carry out a reasonable investigation to establish the medical position. It’s important to have medical evidence as to when the employee is likely to return, this could either be from a GP or occupational health. A tribunal would also want to understand the employer’s willingness to facilitate a return to work, are there any adjustments that could help the employee back to work?

When considering disability discrimination, the majority of long-term chronic health conditions will amount to a disability within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010. Someone doesn’t necessarily need to have been absent for a certain length of time before they are classed as having a disability. Employers will therefore also need to bear in mind the duty to make reasonable adjustments where an employee is deemed to have a disability and reasonable adjustments could include a change in hours, redeployment or alterations to sick pay. The focus should be on considering whether or not you can make adjustments that could support a return to work in some capacity.

Managing short-term and long-term sickness absence can be a difficult balance, ensuring that it’s handled correctly is important when it comes to treating employees fairly and consistently and protecting the business from potential claims relating to disability.

Get in touch on 01271 859267 or office@fitzgeraldhr.co.uk to find out how we could support you in addressing long and short term absence issues.

Read more:

How to use metrics and absence figures to measure absence

How to measure time lost to absence

How to implement trigger points to help manage absence