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Dealing with Employee Absence

Employee absences can be both costly and disruptive for businesses.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's 2016 annual survey report on Absence Management, on average people were absent from work for 6.3 days in the year, compared with 6.9 days per employee in 2015. However, absence rates vary considerably within and between different sectors.

Stress was the most common cause of long-term absence, and the second most common cause of short-term absence – after minor illness. Workload, non-work factors and management style were again reported as the top three causes of stress at work. In addition, a quarter of the organisations surveyed reported that non-genuine absence was one of their top five causes of short-term absence.

More organisations are recognising the important part line managers play by giving them primary responsibility for managing employee absence. However, this awareness was not matched by support by way of initial training or tailored ongoing support for the role.

Overall, the survey findings suggest that addressing long hours' cultures and an increased focus on workers' well-being are among the steps employers need to take if they are to reduce employee absence.

Clearly, it is advisable to have systems in place to measure and analyse these costs so that you can identify problem areas and tackle the possible causes. Are there patterns of absence? Does a particular department have a below average record?

Unhappy, demoralised employees are more likely to take time off work. Workplace stress is a common cause of long-term sickness among non-manual workers. Creating a friendly working environment, where staff feel valued as part of a team and where flexible, ‘family friendly’ policies are in force is likely to pay dividends, keeping absenteeism to a minimum.

To manage absence effectively, make sure staff are well informed as to your sickness policy and procedures. Make sure these are seen to be followed and keep accurate records. These must be kept for at least three years after the appropriate financial year-end.

Where line managers are primarily responsible for overseeing employee absence, make sure they are trained in all aspects of absence-handling and have ongoing support, such as online support or a care conference with the Human Resources department, so that they are able to handle what can be difficult conversations with staff in a sensitive manner.

When hiring new staff, make sure you check their attendance record with the previous employer. If new staff are absent it is good practice to make sure you know if there are problems preventing them from settling in. How staff are treated in the first weeks of a new job is vital. Inadequate training can leave them feeling disillusioned.

It is sensible for employers to ensure that contracts of employment allow them the right to get an independent medical assessment in the event of an employee taking more than a few days off work. You may consider requiring all potential employees to undergo a medical examination with an occupational health adviser.

As a matter of company policy always carry out a ‘return to work’ interview. This may range from ‘hope you’re better, we missed your contribution’, to an identification of underlying problems that will affect your management strategy. It may also deter malingerers.

Long-term sickness must be handled sensitively. You must have an employee’s permission to apply for a medical report. It is vital to keep in touch so that the employee doesn’t feel isolated. Consider referring them to an occupational health specialist. This can identify ways of helping them return to work and give you information as to how long the absence is likely to last.

Disciplinary action for unacceptable absence must be distinguished from dismissal on health grounds. Employers need to be aware of the full range of conditions that count as a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. Where an employee is suffering from a condition covered by the Act, reasonable adjustments must be made to help them return to work. Care must also be taken to avoid a claim for unfavourable treatment 'because of something arising in consequence' of an employee's disability.

As regards the accrual of holiday pay when a worker is on long-term sick leave, workers have the right to carry forward four weeks of their statutory holiday entitlement to the next leave year if they are unable to take it or choose not to do so in the current year owing to long-term illness. However, the leave, or the right to payment in lieu of that leave, will be lost if it is not taken within 18 months of the end of the relevant year in which the entitlement to that leave accrued.

Dealing with long-term absences, in particular, is a difficult area of the law. Each case must be decided on its own merits and proper procedures must be followed. Employers who have not done so for a while are advised to review stress management and long-term absence policies and procedures so that potential problems are identified early on and remedial action is taken as soon as possible.

Fit for Work

Employers are reminded that, since 8 September 2015, employers have been able, with the employee's consent, to make a direct referral to the Fit for Work service, without the need to go via the individual employee's GP.

The aim of the Fit for Work service is to improve the management of sickness absence by helping employees return to work after a period of sick leave.

The service is free and offers occupational health advice and support for people who are in employment. Employees are eligible if they have been off work for four weeks or more owing to sickness and have a realistic prospect of returning to work. For further information and the online form for commencing a referral, see the Fit for Work website.

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.