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Calling in sick? What again...

20/03/2014 | Nicole Humphreys

How to manage staff absences.

Absences from work can be very disruptive to a business. Persistent staff absences can lead to difficult situations and often employers cast doubt over the genuineness of frequent, short term absences. 

As an employer, what are my obligations? 

Employers are required to provide employees "with any terms and conditions relating to incapacity for work due to sickness or injury, including any provision for sick pay". This is usually a policy in a staff handbook or on a company website, although it can be in the employment contract. Having a well drafted policy in place will allow employers to deal with staff absence consistently, it will also clearly set out the obligations of employees when they are absent from work. 

Do I have to pay employees when they are off sick? 

There is no statutory right to be paid for absence from work due to sickness although some employment contracts will entitle employees to a payment. In the absence of any written agreement, if an employer has always paid an employee it may become an implied right. For this reason, it is always best to have a written policy. 

Many employers choose to provide only statutory sick pay (SSP) and employees will be entitled to SSP if they are eligible. The rate of SSP is currently £86.70 (March 2014) and lasts for up to 28 weeks. 

Keep a record 

It is vital to keep records of levels of staff absence to highlight patterns or potential problems. Absence records can also be used for other aspects of the management of the business, for example to back up management decisions on a change of policy or for redundancy selection - although tread carefully where absence is related to a disability or to pregnancy and maternity. 

When absence becomes a problem 

Often, absences can be dealt with informally but if absence becomes an issue, an employer should aim to investigate further why the absence is continuing, when the employee will be likely to be able to return to work or, for short term, intermittent absences, when attendance levels might be improved. 

Short term/intermittent absences; 

Before any formal action can be taken it is important to identify what absence levels would be deemed problematic and if a particular employee has exceeded those levels. For this reason, as part of your sickness policy, it is a good idea to set a level which, if exceeded, will trigger further investigation. 

If absences are a problem or an employee has reached a trigger point you should consider; 

  • The effect of absence on colleagues, department and the business overall. 
  • The likelihood of continuing absence and its impact. 
  • Whether there are changes that could be made to reduce absence or the effect on colleagues and the business. 
  • Whether the employee has a disability and, if so, whether there are any reasonable adjustments that could be made. 
  • If there are any other factors affecting attendance such as personal problems or stress at work. 
  • Whether it is appropriate to give a formal warning that attendance levels need to improve. 

An employee should be given the opportunity to state their case and suggest ways to improve attendance. If you intend to start formal disciplinary procedures you should ensure that this is done fairly, reasonably and with appropriate warning if dismissal is a likely outcome. 

Long term absence 

Long term absence is usually a more thorny issue and, in many cases imposes the increased duty on employers to consider whether any reasonable adjustments are necessary to facilitate a return to work. Essentially an employer should seek to discuss with the employee; 

  • The likely date of return setting out arrangements for future contact, further medical review. This will ultimately lead to the question of whether the employer and the business can continue to wait for the employee to return. 
  • Whether the employee perceives they can return to their previous job and what adjustments can be made. 
  • If there are any alternatives the employee may wish to explore: redeployment or application for employment benefits. 
  • Whether the person has a disability and, if so, whether there are any reasonable adjustments that should be made. 

If any formal approach is adopted where dismissal is a possible outcome employers should seek to gain specialist medical advice from an independent specialist doctor or occupational health expert. It is advisable to act in accordance with any recommendations in medical reports unless there is a good evidence-based reason not to do so. 

If dismissal is contemplated it is essential to carry out a proper investigation and to follow a fair procedure to avoid claims of unfair dismissal. Even if you think (or have evidence) that sickness absence is not genuine, you should still carry out a full investigation and follow a proper procedure if dismissal is an option. 

For further information on managing staff absences please contact our Head of Employment Law, Nicole Humphreys on 08458 678978 or email:

Nicole Humphreys
Head of Employment & Dispute Resolution Solicitor

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