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Top Tips: Managing Sickness Absence

Top Tips: Managing Sickness Absence

19/02/2021

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that, at an average of 4.4 days per worker, sickness absence is nearly at its lowest level since figures were first collected 25 years ago. Though corresponding costs of sickness absence have fallen to a median of £568 per employee according to XpertHR's latest annual report, it is nevertheless the case that – viewed from the level of a single school or college – one or two problem absences can prove both expensive and disruptive, particularly when supply costs start to mount up. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, absence rates (and therefore costs) are likely to have risen much higher than the norm. Absence costs are also typically higher in the public sector.

Those too ill to work should clearly be at home until they are well enough to return, but what should employers do when sickness absence - for whatever reason - has become so disruptive, or so lengthy, that action must be taken?

Read our top tips or - if you've only got time for a really quick summary - watch our "HR Take Two" video below on managing sickness absence.

Dig out your absence management policy

You will struggle to take any management action against individuals if you do not have a transparent, well-known policy setting out expectations for attendance, reporting procedures and the potential consequences for the employee of an unsatisfactory attendance record. If you do not issue the full policy to all employees as a matter of course, make it accessible (on the intranet or in the staff room) and ensure that the basics are understood by all employees by covering it as part of induction, with occasional reminders to all staff about absence reporting procedures.

Make consistent use of return-to-work interviews

Nearly two-thirds of employers in a 2007 study by Employment Review thought that return-to-work interviews had cut absence levels in their organisation; the research also showed that they were most successful in smaller organisations. Using return-to-work interviews in accordance with your policy ensures that employees are aware that their absence has been noticed. For those who are genuinely unwell it can help prevent issues escalating, for example where absence has been triggered by anxiety at work. Where the validity of the illness is more dubious, a requirement to explain absence and potentially have attendance reviewed on an ongoing basis often acts as an effective deterrent.

Monitor absence levels

Your policy may provide for a ‘trigger point’ for investigating an individual’s absence pattern or duration. Having a threshold in place can be a great management tool but it will be futile if there is no monitoring of absence records. By periodically reviewing absence levels and treating employees consistently, there is a firm basis for action to be taken where necessary which focuses on the level of disruption certain absences cause, irrespective of whether or not the absence is genuine. It is also difficult for the employee to feel that they are being ‘singled out’ if you are simply following established procedure.

Focus on supporting a return to work

The longer an employee is off work, the less likely it is statistically that they will ever return. Where possible, ask the employee in to attend a meeting (or, whilst the coronavirus pandemic persists, hold it remotely) to look at what support could be made available which might help secure an early return on a phased basis or with altered duties. The GP should make use of the ‘fit note’ to make suggestions of this nature, however involve your OH provider where you need additional information and remember that the final decision on whether adjustments can be accommodated rests with the employer. It is a common misunderstanding that employees have to be 100% fit to return to work. Provided that the employer has assessed the situation in conjunction with the employee, there is no reason why someone cannot return before they are fully fit and in many cases this can have a beneficial effect on mental and physical health.

Keep in touch with employees who are off sick, particularly long-term

Keeping in touch serves two purposes: to provide support to the employee and to establish pragmatic details about progress and likely duration of absence. There is no reason why contact should not be by telephone, except where the employee has reasonable grounds for requesting otherwise (the obvious example being when the illness is related to stress at work where the employee may wish to minimise contact). To maintain reasonable contact with an employee is not harassment and managers should not feel unable to contact their staff. However, do avoid badgering them with work issues when they are unwell. During long-term sickness absence, regular sickness review meetings should be scheduled, with the employee present wherever possible. Keeping employees up to date about what’s happening at work, in an undemanding way, can also stop them losing touch with the workplace and becoming more anxious about returning.

Make use of your occupational health services

In cases of long-term or persistent short-term absence, it is vital to the management of absence (and the defence of any later dismissal decision) that up-to-date medical information on the diagnosis, prognosis and likelihood of a return to work has been considered. With regular short-term absence, an indication of whether or not there are any underlying health conditions will impact on how you manage the situation. In all cases, occupational health should be able to help advise on any disabilities affecting attendance or performance in the role. Where this is the case, the legal duty to make reasonable adjustments arises and particular care must be taken to ensure that this duty is met.

Look at proactive measures to improve staff wellbeing

Publicise your EAP service - if you provide one - via noticeboards, intranet pages and through periodic reminders: this is a valuable benefit to employees offering access to a range of support services, often including counselling. Make sure that all staff are aware of any other staff benefits schemes offered by the school/college (or, for maintained schools, via the local authority) such as childcare vouchers, discounted medical insurance or gym membership. Consider whether staff would benefit from workshops in managing stress or promoting a healthy lifestyle. Sometimes these may be available via your OH or EAP provider.

Create individual solutions

You have an absence management policy and the steps you take should be applied consistently for the sake of a fair process. In practice, however, every case is different and should therefore be managed based on the particular circumstances. Support for an employee to get well and to return to work can, and should, be tailored to reflect the person and the health issues involved. Don’t be afraid to talk to the employee about what would work for them; you are not bound by their suggestions but they may have thought of relevant aspects that you haven’t considered.

Consider refresher training for your line managers

Tackling unacceptable absence is part of every line manager’s job but many managers report feeling ill-equipped to deal effectively with what can be a difficult subject. Research shows that where line managers have had training in absence management, there is a decrease in sickness absence rates. Training can look at subjects such as appropriate intervention strategies for short and long-term absence, having conversations about sensitive issues, the legal framework, and how to conduct effective return-to-work and sickness review meetings.

...And finally, remember that dismissal for ill health capability falls within one of the potentially fair reasons for dismissal

Many managers tolerate poor attendance, even when they believe that some or all of the absence isn’t genuine. Where an employee is genuinely unwell the employer should, of course, be accommodating of their needs, but this does not mean that absence can, or should, be supported indefinitely. The impact of absence on other staff should also be considered. The additional workload and difficulty over planning can start to impact on morale, particularly if employees believe that the absent colleague is abusing the system. Follow a fair process in order to achieve a fair outcome.

Topical Sickness Absence Issue: 'Long Covid'

There are still a lot of unknowns about the longer-term effects of Covid-19 though an NHS taskforce is on the case. A King's College London study has suggested that one in 10 of 18-49 year olds experience so-called 'Long Covid' which means that there will be a number of people in the workplace - including in schools - who have caught coronavirus and will be affected by ongoing symptoms.

From an HR perspective, if you have a member of staff experiencing Long Covid, you will be looking to manage any ongoing absence in the same way you would long-term absence arising from other causes.

It’s at least possible that the day-to-day impact of Long Covid could amount to a disability in law because it’s clearly an impairment but we don’t yet know how long the effects might last. Until more information is known, it may be prudent to treat long-term effects of Long Covid as a disability where it otherwise meets the definition - meaning there is a substantial adverse impact on the employee’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Medical advice is going to be critical so refer to occupational health and make sure you have up-to-date information if you’re going to make any significant decisions affecting someone's employment.

As part of supporting a return to work, you will be considering what adjustments might be necessary as appropriate to the employee’s symptoms (which vary from person to person). This might include temporarily changing working hours or working pattern to accommodate chronic fatigue, reducing the need to walk around to combat shortness of breath or joint pain. They might need temporary flexibility to take time off for medical appointments or they might need changes to normal duties to allow for more time sitting down, for example.

Hopefully most sufferers will experience a return to normality over a period of weeks or possibly months, though periods of feeling well and periods of relapse are not uncommon. For very seriously-affected employees whose health has been severely compromised and for whom there is no prospect of a sustainable return in the reasonably foreseeable future, you may ultimately be considering terminating the contract on ill-health grounds. Again, medical advice will be key here. You’ll also need to factor in the employee’s own wishes and clear evidence about the impact of the ongoing absence in the operational sense – how is the absence negatively impacting on the school or college? Always take specific HR advice in these cases as there may also be options such as ill-health retirement to consider.