How can employers manage sickness absence?

Patrick Glencross

Senior Associate

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January 2, 2024

Categories Employment Law Updates

On average, each employee in the UK took off 5.7 days due to sickness in 2022, according to the Office for National Statistics. The estimate of working days lost due to sickness or injury reached a new high of 185.6 million in the year. Groups with the highest rates of sickness absence included women, older workers, those with long-term health conditions, people working part-time, and people working in care, leisure, or other service occupations.

Research by the CIPD published in October 2023 similarly showed the highest sickness absence rate for over a decade, and an average absence rate of 7.8 days per employee or 3.4% of working time. Mental ill health and musculoskeletal injuries remain the most common causes of long-term absence, however long Covid is now the fourth highest cause.

The wider impact of sickness absence on the UK labour market and UK economy is very substantial. According to the OBR report in November, long-term sickness more than accounts for the number of working-age people classed as inactive remaining 400,000 above pre-pandemic levels.

Sickness absence presents a host of challenges and problems for employers, including loss of productivity and increased pressure on colleagues who are covering for the absent employee. Sickness and absence need to be managed well in order to optimise the employee’s prospects of a successful return to work and to minimise the risks of potential claims such as for disability discrimination, unfair dismissal or personal injury.

Acas has recently updated their practical guidance on sickness absence and we highlight the key points of this guidance for employers.

What is sickness?

The guidance starts with a reminder that employers should treat both physical and mental health as equally important. When an employee takes sick leave due to a mental health problem, the guidance advises that employers should look into whether this was because of something at work; and if so, they should take steps to resolve the cause.

Fit notes

Employees do not need to provide a fit note as evidence that they are unable to work until they have been unwell for more than seven calendar days, and can “self-certify” their sick leave. Fit notes can now be provided by a broader range of healthcare professionals, including nurses, pharmacists and physiotherapists as well as doctors. Fit notes can state that the employee might be fit for work and make recommendations for getting them back to work, such as light duties, a phased return or making changes to their workstation or working pattern.

Recording absence

Information about health is given special protection under data protection laws and should be treated as highly confidential. Employers need to have processes in place to monitor absence records and to respond consistently to absences.

Records should cover the number of absences, their duration and the reasons for the absences in relation to individual employees and across the organisation. This helps to spot patterns within the organisation and to identify any underlying causes. The guidance reminds employers that it may be necessary to record disability-related absence separately and treat this differently to avoid discriminating against disabled employees under the Equality Act 2010. You should act carefully where you think an employee’s absence could be related to a disability, even if the employee has not flagged this.

Trigger points

Keeping accurate absence records for all staff is essential for all employers, particularly those who use “trigger points” or “review points” in their absence management policies, to help ensure fair and consistent treatment of staff under the policy.

Typically, after a certain period of absence or a certain number of absences, the employee hits a “trigger point” that prompts an absence review under the policy. The review usually involves discussing their absence with the employee. However the employer should be flexible and sensitive to individual circumstances. The employer should consider if there is anything that can be done to support the employee, such as workplace adjustments, a phased return to work, or flexible working, and whether it is appropriate to obtain occupational health advice. They should also consider whether the absence might be disability-related, raising the question of making reasonable adjustments, or related to pregnancy or mental health, or to any extent caused by work and the work environment.

They must not discriminate against employees when applying trigger points, seeing that passing through the trigger points under the policy is liable to move the employee towards dismissal. If some or all of the absence is related to disability, it may be reasonable to adjust the trigger points or to discount some or all of the disability-related absence. We can help you ensure you comply with the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 in relation to disabled employees.

Reducing sickness

The Acas guidance advises how employers can create a supportive work environment and culture that can help keep absence rates down. This includes ensuring staff take breaks and holidays and training managers to spot employees with a poor work-life balance. Employees should feel confident that if they raise concerns, for example about workload, they will be taken seriously and offered support.

Return to work meetings

These play an important role in addressing any underlying causes of absence and successfully bringing the employee back to work. There is no need for the meeting to be overly formal, but it should be held in a private setting and a note should be kept. Return to work meetings are an opportunity to check that the employee is well enough to be working, and how they can be supported to ensure that their return is successful. The guidance emphasises the importance of checking to combat the effect of ‘presenteeism’ – where employees continue to work even when they are unwell. The manager should check any fit notes to ensure any recommendations have been picked up and, where relevant, discuss if the employee needs any support or adjustments.

Homeworking and presenteeism

Presenteeism has become more common with homeworking. The guidance points out the negative effects of presenteeism including employees taking longer to recover from illness. To combat presenteeism, employers should foster a culture in which employees do not feel pressurised to work when they are unwell. Expectations should be the same whether employees are working from home or in an office. Employers may even have to tell an employee that they are not well enough to work. If the employee disagrees and wants to carry on working, please speak to us as you may still have to pay them their usual pay.

Dismissal and policies

Ultimately it may be possible for an employer to fairly dismiss an employee on long-term sickness absence or who has a record of persistent short-term absence. To minimise the risk of a claim, it is crucial that employers carefully follow a fair process and address any potential disability issues. Where the employee’s absence is the result of a disability, the employer needs to be able to justify its actions and show that its treatment of the employee is “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.

Having a clear and effective absence management policy, which is consistently applied, is the key to fairness and avoiding discrimination risks. At all times, managers also need to act sensitively and respond to the individual’s specific circumstances.

How we can help

Absence management can be time consuming and challenging for managers. We can put you on a sound footing with a suitable absence management policy, and we can guide you through appropriate processes to follow in relation to particular employees, where necessary. Contact Senior Associate, Patrick Glencross on 01227 763939 for further information.