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Managing Sickness Absence - Tips for Employers

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Sickness absence costs UK organisations approximately £29 billion per annum (Source: PwC). That is purely the estimated financial cost to UK employers of those on sick leave. The knock-on practical effect of sickness absence being handled badly by businesses can include reduced staff morale, loss of productivity and loss of employees. The actual cost may be more significant than the immediate financial impact of an employee on sickness absence. 

Managing sickness absence needs to balance the requirements towards the employee against the needs of the business. Eradicating myths that seem to exist in relation to sickness absence are essential to put an employer in the correct mindset to handle and manage the issue for the ultimate benefit of the business. Remember then:

* There is no specific statutory right to take time off work in cases of sickness or injury. Employers however commonly offer paid time off as a benefit, but the benefit should not be abused and an appropriate record should be kept to ensure this. Leave taken outside of the benefit should be taken unpaid, and at the employer's discretion where applicable. 

* Incapability is a potentially fair reason to dismiss an employee. It is often the case that employers fear that those on long term sick leave are protected against termination of their employment as it would amount to an unfair dismissal. If a fair procedure is adopted, and the genuine reason for dismissal is that the employee's ill health deems the employee incapable to perform their role, then a dismissal is likely to be deemed lawful and fair. 

* Fit notes (Statements of Fitness to Work). Brought in in 2010, these replaced previous 'Sick Notes' and were intended to combat the UK's problem of sickness absence. They did not and have not gone far enough. Fit notes allow the Medical Practitioner two options: Not fit for work; or, May be fit for work, taking into account certain adjustments (and these are listed in the note). The Medical Practitioner does not know your business. They know what their patient has told them. The onus is on the Employer to consider the implications of the Fit Note and it's recommendations.

Top tips to handle long term sickness absence

  1. Understand the reason for absence and whether it is genuine. Obtain a medical report if necessary with the employee's consent and consult with the employee on the contents of the report. 
  2. Consider, in light of information known, whether the absence could be connected to a disability and if so, whether any reasonable adjustments may have to be made. It is important to understand this early.
  3. Keep in contact with the employee. Prognosis may change during the illness and good communication with those absent can help manage the situation on an ongoing basis. 
  4. Have a sickness absence policy. Having an effective policy in place helps deal with absences consistently and effectively as well as making employees aware day-to-day as to the standards of attendance and reporting expectations.  
  5. Monitor absence and keep records. Businesses should be aware of any patterns or trends in sickness absence which could indicate a problem. For instance, an employee's absence record alters radically but there is no apparent ongoing illness disclosed. In this situation, the employer should consider any underlying issue such as working conditions or team issues affecting the employee. 
  6. Potential dismissal. Employers need employees to function. If an employee's ill health exists to an extent that their role can no longer be reasonably performed, then an employer will have a potentially fair reason to dismiss (Extra tip - always take legal advice in circumstances which may be complicated).
  7. Genuine illness? An employee dishonestly taking sick leave will usually be guilty of misconduct and in certain circumstances, gross misconduct. Conducting return to work interviews after absence and requiring evidence of illness can be ways of establishing whether genuine illness is the reason for absence. 

Sickness absence cannot be avoided. Statistics show it is on the rise and the cost to businesses is growing. If managed efficiently and effectively however, it need not be the headache (sorry) for your business that such an issue causes so many more.