It can be hard to know how best to manage sickness absence. The best way for you to deal with unacceptable sickness absence will largely depend on the type of absence and what is causing the absence. For example, you’ll want to manage an employee who has many periods of short-term absence differently to an employee who’s off on long-term sick leave.
But whatever you do to manage unacceptable absence, there are three things you should bear in mind in all cases.
1. Maintain appropriate contact with your employee
You can choose how you contact your employee, and this may include: by phone, face to face, by email or even by letter. The amount of contact and how you do it’ll often depend on your employee’s job, the size and culture of your business and the nature of your employee’s illness. You should try to strike a balance between demonstrating your concern and offering support on the one hand and keeping a sufficient distance on the other hand so that your employee doesn’t feel pressured while off sick. You may wish to hold any face-to-face meetings at a neutral venue or at the employee’s home if they will find it difficult to come into work.
If you have a specific absence management policy, this may set out when and how often you and your employee need to be in contact. If you do have such a policy, then you should try to follow the requirements set out in it. That said, if following the policy will make your employee worse, then you will need to try to agree a way of keeping in contact without exacerbating your employee’s condition.
You should also keep your absent employees in the loop by sending them copies of newsletters, inviting them to work social events and sending them details of vacancies and opportunities within your business.
2. Keep updated on your employee’s medical condition
You should do what you can to keep up to date on your employee’s medical condition. After all, how can you hope to make an informed decision about your employee if you don’t have the latest information. You can get the information by asking your employee about how they are and, where appropriate, by obtaining medical evidence such as a letter from your employee’s GP, a specialist’s report or an occupational health report.
If you have a clause in your contracts of employment or in a sickness absence policy which says your employee is required to attend a medical examination, then you can invoke that clause if you need to. However, even without such a provision, you can and should actively seek an update on your employee’s medical position, including obtaining a report if appropriate. Remember, the onus is on you to request updates, not on your employee to provide them.
3. Keep a paper trail
You should keep accurate and legible records of all meetings and correspondence.
Your managers should retain file notes of all telephone conversations they have with your employee, with medical specialists and with other managers. They should also keep records of any telephone messages they leave. Ideally, your managers will also follow-up any telephone conversations in writing summarising the steps they took to contact your employee and any points and actions agreed, such as arranging to visit your employee at their home or requesting that they provide copies of up-to-date sickness certificates. These notes, letters and emails will provide important contemporaneous evidence of the steps you’ve taken. But do remember to write all correspondence in a non-judgemental, factual style as it may be used later in any dispute with your employee.
You should store your records confidentially and ensure that they are only used for the purposes for which they are collected.
Managing short-term absence
Employees who have repeated episodes of short-terms absence can be disruptive to your business because they are hard to plan around.
You should aim to promote a positive attendance culture. You can emphasise that while genuine sickness absence will be supported, any unjustified absence will not be tolerated.
To effectively manage short-term absence, you should:
- Have set trigger mechanisms for you to review attendance. Once your employee reaches the stated number of days off or episodes of absence then you can review their absence and issue a caution if appropriate. You can set out your trigger points in a sickness absence policy or keep them confidential if you wish. The important thing here is to be consistent so that you can ‘justify’ your action if you are called upon to do so.
- Use a disciplinary procedure or sickness absence procedure to issue warnings or cautions for unacceptable absence levels. Your disciplinary procedure, or separate sickness absence procedure if you have one, should make it clear to your employees that unjustified or unacceptable absence will be dealt with appropriately. You should also take into account any underlying health conditions your employee may have.
- Hold return to work interviews so you can understand what is causing your employee’s absence. They can help you identify short-term absence problems at an early stage and provide your managers with an opportunity to start a dialogue about any underlying issues which might be causing the employee’s absence.
- Train your line managers in absence management so they can properly deal with sickness absence. Your managers need to understand how they need to communicate to create a trusting environment where your employees feel able to flag issues at an early stage. If your managers can spot the early warning signs of potential problems, your employees can be given appropriate support before matters escalate. You should consider training your managers on your sickness and absence procedures and policies, including the trigger points if you have them in place; the importance of their role in the process; the importance of keeping a record of everything that happens; how fit notes work; and the role of occupational health services.
- Put in place an employee assistance programme to help your employees with such things as counselling.
- Provide your employee with leave for family circumstances if necessary.
- Consider changing your employee’s working patterns or environment if that would help reduce your employee’s absence.
- Involve occupational health professionals if appropriate.
Managing long-term absence
There isn’t any absolute definition for long-term absence, but it is most-commonly used to describe absence of four or more weeks. You’ll need to keep in touch with your absent employee in a sensitive way and have a formal return-to-work strategy for them returning after any prolonged absence. In addition, you’ll normally want to have meetings with your employee while they’re still off sick, but this does depend on how long they’re off for. Medical evidence is going to be key to any decision you make about your employee’s future, so you’ll need to get an occupational health report or a specialist’s report before you make any decision regarding your employee.
To help you manage long-term absence, you should:
- Hold regular meetings with your absent employee. At these meetings you will want to explore:
- A likely return date for your employee
- Arrangements for future contact, further medical review and further meetings
- Whether your employee has a disability
- Whether you can continue to wait for your employee to return
- Whether your employee believes they will be able to return to their job without the need for you to make any adjustments
- Whether your employee believes you will need to make adjustments to their job to enable them to return. If so, whether you can make those adjustments; and
- Whether there are any alternatives such as redeployment or the need for your employee to make a claim on any income protection policy
- Involve occupational health professionals if appropriate. You’ll be more likely to need a report from a specialist or an occupational health professional with long-term absence than with cases of short-term absence.
- Undertake a risk assessment to help your employee return to work after long-term absence. This may help you understand what part of your employee’s role may have an adverse impact on them and what changes to their role you can make.
- Change your employee’s work patterns or environment, including considering flexible working.
- Train your line managers in absence management, so they can properly deal with sickness absence. Your managers need to understand how they need to communicate with your employee, so your employee feels able to openly discuss their health and any issues they have. Your managers need to understand how they can help your employee and understand the basics of disability discrimination. You should consider training your managers on your sickness and absence procedures and policies, the importance of their role in the process; the importance of keeping a record of everything that happens; how fit notes work; and the role of occupational health services.
- Hold return-to-work interviews that are supportive and discuss ongoing adjustments where needed.
Our experienced HR and Employment team offer legal services for employers of all sizes across Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Essex and London. We have offices in London, Bury St Edmunds and Sudbury. Contact our team and schedule a consultation today to find out more on the services we offer on 01284 767766.
Please note this article is provided for general information purposes only to clients and friends of Atkins Dellow LLP. It is not intended to impart legal advice on any matter. Specialist advice should be taken in relation to specific circumstances. Whilst we endeavour to ensure that the information in this article is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy, and Atkins Dellow LLP does not accept any liability for error or omission.
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