Managing sickness absence effectively

30 August 2019

Ensure your sickness absence policy is fit for purpose.

Having a comprehensive sickness absence policy is important in ensuring that sickness absence is managed effectively across your organisation. We recommend that all employers consider including the following in their policy:

  • The process staff should follow when they call in sick. Employees should be required to provide a reason for their absence at this stage, self-certify for a period of up to 7 days and then submit medical notes from their GP.

  • Automatic ‘triggers’ for reviewing absences. Whilst we encourage employers to set these triggers to ensure that sickness absence is managed proactively, they should be sensitive to individual circumstances. As an example, where a member of staff has to attend regular treatment sessions then a 'trigger which uses a number of absences in a rolling periodmay need to be applied flexibly for this individual. The Acas guide ‘Managing Attendance and Employee Turnover’ includes information on two different ways of measuring absence, the ‘Bradford factor’ and the ‘lost time’ rate here.

  • Return to work meetings. These should be conducted by the employee’s line manager, either after every absence, after a certain number of absences within a rolling period, or absences of a certain length. The purpose of these meetings is to identify the reason for the absence(s), for the manager to identify signs of an underlying health condition which may require further investigation (e.g. a medical report) and to consider whether there are any adjustments that the employer could make to prevent further absences.

  • Details and conditions of company sick pay, if appropriate. Some employers prefer to provide enhanced sick pay at their discretion, but it is important that this is applied in a consistent and non-discriminatory way. Employers should also be aware of the risk that discretionary enhanced sick pay may become contractual where it is applied without exception.

A process for managing absence, including a series of ‘warnings’ and review periods to improve attendance or dismiss an employee, where this process has failed.

These circumstances should be managed carefully and you should take legal advice, if necessary. Ensure the policy is being enforced where appropriate.

It is important that line managers enforce the sickness absence policy, as this can assist in reducing short-term, persistent absences and managing long-term sickness issues earlier and more effectively. It is also important that potential long-term sickness absence is managed from an early stage, rather than merely allowing an employee to be off sick for a substantial period of time before action is taken.

Employers should ensure that absences are being recorded consistently and, if your policy requires return- to-work interviews to be carried out, check they are being done and notes are being kept.

If an employer has reason to believe that an absence is not genuine, it should consider whether there is sufficient evidence to support a misconduct case. In these circumstances, the disciplinary policy should be applied in the usual way and we recommend that the sickness absence policy states that fraudulent sickness absence is a disciplinary matter.

One way to encourage line managers to manage staff absences appropriately is to provide them with training on the sickness absence policy and procedure to be followed. It may also be appropriate to provide additional training for managers on skills such as having difficult conversations with employees and identifying signs of mental health issues. In recent years, the number of employers training staff in ‘mental health first aid’ has increased considerably.

Consider obtaining medical records or occupational health reports.

Employers can obtain medical evidence, either from an employee’s GP/consultant or an occupational health advisor engaged privately by the employer. We recommend that employment contracts include a clause obliging the employee to undergo a medical examination at the employer's request.

Where an employer is seeking medical evidence from the employee’s own GP or consultant, they will need to obtain the employee's consent in line with the Access to Medical Reports Act 1988. In most cases, it will assist the medical professional adviser if they are provided with a series of questions to answer in relation to the employee’s health, disability status and ability to carry out the role.

Prior to obtaining this evidence, employers should check they have the appropriate data protection arrangements in place to ensure the processing of this type of data, and employee health data generally, is lawful.

Consider whether it is appropriate to ask medical questions or obtain a medical report during the recruitment process.

Employers are prohibited from asking job applicants about their health prior to offering them work or including them in a pool of applicants, unless the purpose of the question is to:

  • Establish the applicant’s ability to undergo the application process or ascertain whether the applicant requires any reasonably adjustments to be made during the selection process; or

  • Establish if the applicant will be able to carry out a function that is intrinsic to the role; or

  • Monitor diversity or positively assist disabled applicants.

Where a role requires a certain level of health or fitness in order to carry out the tasks required, asking medical questions during the selection process can assist in reducing sickness absence during employment.

Legal update

Last month, the government released a consultation on its plans to change the existing SSP regulations in order to assist employees with long-term health conditions to stay in work and to support their employers. Some key changes proposed by the government are as follows:

  • Amending the current SSP regulations to enable an employee to return to work on a flexible, phased basis without losing the right to SSP and removing the rules related to ‘qualifying days’.

  • Extending the eligibility for SSP to include those earning below the ‘lower earnings limit’ (currently £118 per week).

  • Extending the requirement to make workplace adjustments on ‘health grounds’ on the request of an employee, even where the employee is not ‘disabled’ under the Equality Act definition.

  • Providing a rebate to organisations who assist their staff in returning to work and ‘co-funding’ occupational health support.

The full consultation is available here.

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