How to handle sickness absence

An employee blows her nose whilst drinking a hot drink

There's no getting away from the fact that your employees will get sick from time to time. But staff illness can be tricky to manage if you're running a small business

The first step to managing sickness absence is to create a sickness policy. It must recognise the need for employees to take time off when they are unwell but strike a balance by discouraging both too much absenteeism and also presenteeism – when employees come to work even though they are ill.

A sickness policy will let employees know the process you expect them to follow when they're ill. It should be part of an employee handbook and given out as soon as someone starts work. Your policy can include information on:

  • How you want an employee to tell you that they're ill (by phone, email or text, for example);
  • Who they should contact;
  • When they should notify you;
  • When you'll need them to fill out a self-certification form;
  • When you'll need them to provide you with a fit note;
  • Your employees' rights to Statutory Sick Pay;
  • Your company's sick pay scheme (if you have one).

The policy should make it clear that you can take disciplinary action if the employee doesn't follow these rules. Your sickness policy should outline the level of absence that will trigger formal action.

You can set out the absence management triggers based on your business needs. Usually, employees with lots of short absences should reach the trigger before employees with long-term absences. A "return to work" interview after every absence, no matter how short, will give a clear signal that you take absenteeism seriously.

While you have the freedom to set your own policy, there are some set rules regarding the notification of sickness absence which apply for the purposes of being entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). While an employee may have breached your own rules, you may not be able to withhold payment of SSP for that period.

The best way to be monitor sick leave is to ask the employee to speak to their line manager in person to report an absence. The manager will then be able to ask the employee why they are absent, if they have seen a doctor or booked an appointment and what their expected return to work date will be.

Is the sick leave genuine?

Most employees who take time off work are absent for genuine reasons. However, frequent bouts of short-term absence can ring alarm bells. The average employee has 5.5 days off sick per year so that can be a useful benchmark if you find one of your employees is taking a lot more time off. However, it's important to find out if there is an underlying condition connecting any absences. Specific attention needs to be paid if it is established that the employee has a disability.

Keeping records of sickness absence will allow you to spot any patterns. However, if there is no link underpinning the absences, then a disciplinary procedure may be needed. Implementing a disciplinary procedure for sickness absence does not mean you consider the sickness to be fake. It simply means that your company cannot perform at its best because of the absence and therefore it must be addressed.

Dealing with long-term absence

Longer periods of absence are often experienced when an employee is suffering from a serious illness, including stress or depression. Where absence becomes long-term, it may be useful to refer the employee to an occupational health specialist.

If the reason for absence is classed as a disability, the Equality Act 2010 requires that employers look at reasonable adjustments that can be made to enable the employee to perform their role.

However, prevention is often the best way to minimise sickness absence. Employee Assistance Programmes are used by many firms to help staff manage life's ups and downs at home or in the workplace. These programmes offer telephone or face-to-face counselling and they can significantly reduce absenteeism and improve staff performance.

In some circumstances, however, it may be necessary to consider dismissal on medical capability grounds. You'll need reports from the employee's GP and from an occupational health professional to demonstrate that you have acted reasonably before taking steps towards termination of the employee's contract.

You should be able to give notice of termination on the grounds of capability if the medical evidence finds that:

  • The employee will be incapable of work for the foreseeable future;
  • No reasonable adjustments can be made;
  • No suitable alternative work is available;
  • And you have a genuine need to replace the employee on a permanent basis.

Preparing employees for a return to work

It can be daunting for an employee to return to work, especially if they've been off for a long time or their absence was due to workplace stress. To put them at ease, hold a "return to work" meeting and let them know what will happen once they come back. Discuss whether they need any support and give them an update on what has happened since they were last in work.

Employees absent from work for long periods of time may wonder what colleagues think about their absence and how it will impact working relationships. You will need to reassure the employee that reasons for their absence are confidential and will continue to be so. An understanding approach is essential in order to encourage the individual to return to work.

Absence record template


Visit the Acas website to download a free absence record template that can help you keep a record of an employee’s absence and punctuality.

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