Businesses lose a lot of money through sickness absence, not all of it legitimate. While many of the issues can be handled informally, there are times when clear policies and decisive action are needed.
This briefing covers:
- Statutory sick pay (SSP).
- Keeping sickness absence under control.
- Coping with long-term sickness.
- Dismissing sick employees.
1 Sickness absence payment
1.1 Employers have to pay sick pay to those employees who are entitled to it (see 3).
- The first SSP payment should be on the next - or, at the latest, the second - pay day after the sick leave.
1.2 Many employers choose to opt out of SSP requirements.
- Your SSP arrangements must be more generous than the legal minimum.
- You must keep detailed records.
2 Statutory sick pay (SSP)
SSP is the minimum level of payment you must make to any employee unable to work because of physical or mental illness or disablement.
2.1 As long as an employee qualifies for SSP (see 3), it is paid at a flat rate of £88.45 per week.
2.2 Employees become entitled to SSP from the fourth ‘qualifying day’ of sickness onwards.
A qualifying day is a day on which the employee would normally have worked.
- In practice, this means there are usually three days before SSP is payable in any ‘period of incapacity for work’ (PIW).
- If the employee is sick at a weekend, Bank Holiday or any other non-working day, this counts towards the four-day PIW, but is not a 'qualifying day'.
2.3 Employers must keep full records of SSP.
- Records must be kept for three years.
- Failure to do so can lead to a £1,000 fine.
3 Who qualifies for SSP?
SSP is for all qualifying employees who are unable to work because of sickness. This includes part time and temporary staff and agency workers working on a fixed-term contract, regardless of the contract length.
3.1 You must pay SSP to any employee who is unfit for work.
- There is no qualifying length of service or minimum number of hours a week.
3.2 The employee’s earnings must be over the NI lower-earnings limit of £112 per week.
3.3 You can withhold SSP if the employee:
- Has recently drawn a state benefit (such as maternity allowance or Employment and Support Allowance).
- Is held in custody.
4 Tracking sickness absences
You should have clear rules and show employees they are enforced.
4.1 Tell employees they (or someone else) must notify you by telephone that they are sick by, say, 10am on the first day.
4.2 Ask employees who are off sick for less than seven days to fill in a self-certification form, giving the reason for their absence.
- Insist on a specific description - so you can track whether there is a pattern.
- You can design your own form, or use self-certification form SC2 from HMRC. Form SC2 does not say that giving false information is a disciplinary offence and has no place for a supervisor to sign, which you may want to include.
4.3 Interview employees who have been off sick for a specified period of time (eg seven days) on their return.
- There may be things you can do to prevent a recurrence of the ailment. For example, providing better seating for an employee with back problems.
- Return-to-work interviews are the first line of defence against abuse of the system.
4.4 Ask for a doctor’s ‘fit note’ for periods of sickness of more than seven days.
It indicates whether an individual:
- is not fit for work
- may be fit for work
A ‘may be fit for work’ statement would be given if the doctor believes your worker’s health condition may allow them to work, if you give them appropriate support.
Backs, stress and headaches
Bad backs, stress and headaches cause more pain and suspicion in the workplace than any other sickness issues.
The key to controlling this kind of absence is to stress that repeated absence may put their job at risk, whether the absence is genuine or not.
Employees with any persistent health problems should be encouraged to seek proper medical advice.
- If they refuse, or no improvement is seen, tell them the level of absence is unacceptable. Make it clear the next step may be to start the disciplinary procedure, which may lead to dismissal. Consider seeking information from the employee’s doctor or Occupational Health regarding the employee’s absences before taking disciplinary action.
No business can afford to carry employees who keep missing work, especially if other employees believe the sickness is exaggerated. The costs must be judged in terms of cash and morale.
If you believe someone is exploiting the system, consider dismissing the offender (after following disciplinary procedures). See 9.
5 A pattern of absence
Those who set out to exploit the system unfairly often fall into habits of abuse. These habits may show up as patterns in your personnel records.
5.1 Be on the alert for lots of short absences.
- Repeated absences involving Mondays and Fridays may be particularly significant.
- People who work too many hours, for whatever reason, tend to be off sick more.
5.2 A pattern of absences coinciding with major sporting events may be suspicious.
5.3 A combination of frequent lateness and one-day absences demands investigation.
- The employee may have continuing difficulties at work, or at home.
- There may be chronic health problems that need to be addressed.
- Consider medical information from the employee’s GP or sending the employee for an occupational health assessment.
Whichever it is, you need to know. Consider providing counselling, instead of embarking on the formal disciplinary procedure.
6 Reducing sickness absences
6.1 Create a good working environment.
- Invest in ergonomically sound furniture, lighting and equipment.
- Enforce health and safety standards.
- Encourage teamwork, contact between people and positive motivation.
6.2 Move sick or injured employees to other duties which will not affect their condition.
6.3 If a doctor has stated that your employee ‘may be fit for work’, they can offer suggestions about adjustments to help your employee return to work.
6.4 The Government has launched ‘Fit for Work’. The service offers occupational health assessments and advice to help employees return to or stay in work.
- Fit for Work provides help and advice for employers, employees and GPs to help reduce sickness absence.
- GPs can refer employees that have been, or are likely to be, off work for four weeks or more for an occupational health assessment which will provide a return to work plan.
7 Sickness and discipline
All your employees share an interest in seeing that the few who try to exploit the sickness provisions are brought into line.
7.1 Spell out, in your disciplinary procedure, the consequences of wilful absenteeism.
7.2 You can withhold SSP if you reasonably suspect an employee is not ill.
7.3 If you want to stop paying SSP to an employee, seek an adjudication from HMRC’s Medical Services.
7.4 Always tell employees if levels of sickness absence are putting their jobs at risk.
7.5 If the disciplinary procedure is invoked, make it clear that it is the repeated absence from work, and thus the employee’s ‘capability’ to do the job, that is causing the problem.
- If the process ends in dismissal and a tribunal hearing, it is much easier to justify dismissal on grounds of lack of capability than to get involved in arguments about whether illnesses were real or not.
8 Long-term sickness
8.1 Do not abandon an employee who is on long-term sick leave. Arrange progress reports and home visits.
- Make the employee aware of his or her position. Just knowing there is a job to come back to can help people’s recovery.
8.2 After a long time away, an employee may feel fear about returning.
- Suggest a staged return to work, on a part-time basis, building up to full time.
- Occupational Health or advice from the employee’s doctor or the Fit for Work scheme will be helpful in planning a return to work.
8.3 Explore the possibility of alternative duties.
- Could the employee come back and do lighter work?
8.4 If a return looks unlikely after a long illness, consider offering early retirement, perhaps with enhanced pension arrangements.
8.5 If dismissals resulting from long-term sickness involve people with disabilities, they must be for ‘a substantial and material reason’.
If you can show you have considered all the alternatives and consulted the employee, you can dismiss a person for reasons of sickness.
9.1 You can dismiss a sick employee at any time when it is reasonable to do so.
- In established companies, this may mean waiting for the full 28-week SSP period.
- In a small firm where a gap in the ranks could threaten the business, it might be reasonable to dismiss sooner.
9.2 You will need to have gathered all the facts, including full medical information, to show that the dismissal is reasonable.
9.3 Contact the employee’s GP, with his or her permission, and get a medical assessment.
9.4 If there is no serious prospect of an eventual return to work, explain to the employee that the job can no longer be kept open.
9.5 Confirm the dismissal, giving the appropriate written notice and the appropriate pay.
Rules of thumb
Employees will occasionally need time off for visits to the doctor or dentist or for hospital treatment. Be sympathetic, but let employees know that you expect them to take a reasonably constructive attitude.
Make it clear that you expect employees, where possible, to arrange appointments for the beginning or end of the day to minimise lost time.
You may ask to see an appointment letter or card.
- There is often no documentary evidence available for a one-off visit to the GP.
If you have real doubts, seek permission to contact the doctor or dentist directly.
Encourage people recovering from injury or illness not to prolong their absence.
- Offer to send a taxi, or arrange a lift, for someone getting over a broken leg.
- Suggest light duties or part-time work for an employee who is not fit enough to do what he or she normally does.
Recognise that NHS patients may have little choice about when to have important but non-urgent surgery.
You may insist that paid holiday time be taken for purely cosmetic surgery.