How to manage absence
Managing absence is challenging for many employers. It involves striking a balance between supporting employees to stay in and return to work and taking consistent and fair disciplinary action against employees where necessary.
Two key issues in good absence management are to have in place policies and procedures to (1) prevent or minimise absence and (2) to address absence problems.
Top tips for dealing with absence
Start as you mean to go on
To prevent absence in the first place think about:
- Good working conditions;
- Positive values and culture;
- Giving new starters sufficient support and training;
- Working as a team; and
- Observing company policies e.g. equal opportunities.
Measure, monitor and analyse levels of employee absence
This information can be used to set trigger points for taking action. You should use external benchmarking data to compare your absence levels with those of similar organisations. This will help you to identify if you have an employee absence problem.
Implement a clear absence policy
Common features include:
- Absence notification requirements;
- Statutory and contractual sick pay provisions;
- Use of medical help/advice;
- The role of line managers;
- Return to work interviews; and
- Trigger points.
Communicate absence rules and policy to your employees Make sure that your employees know what the rules are and where they can find them.
Consider fit note requirements
Include this in your absence policy. Fit Notes are provided by GPs. The Fit Note allows doctors to advise that the employee is either not fit for work or that the employee may be fit for work taking account of certain advice. A doctor is able to suggest ways of helping an employee get back to work e.g. a phased return to work or amended duties.
Identify methods for managing short term absence
These could include:
- Return to work interviews;
- Training managers on legal implications of managing absence;
- Obtaining medical evidence; and
- Use of disciplinary/absence procedures.
Keep a paper trail
Ensure accurate records are kept of all meetings and correspondence. If an employee subsequently brings a claim for unfair dismissal, one of the key issues will be whether the employer acted reasonably in treating the capability of the employee as grounds for dismissal.
Be aware of data protection requirements when gathering and storing employee information
Employees should know what information is being collected about them and why (see our Data Protection Checklist).
Don’t jump to conclusions!
There is no legal requirement that a sick employee must stay at home! In some cases such as stress-related illnesses, an employee may be advised that a holiday will help them recover.
Managing absence – the process
Unexpected absences should be investigated promptly and the employee asked for an explanation at a return to work interview. Conduct a fair review of the employee’s attendance record and the reasons for the absences.
If there are no acceptable reasons then you may wish to treat the matter as a conduct issue and deal with it under your disciplinary procedure.
Where there is no Fit Note to support frequent short-term absences, then the employee may be asked to see a doctor to establish whether treatment is necessary and whether the underlying reason for the absence is work-related. If no medical evidence is forthcoming you should consider whether to take action under your disciplinary procedure.
If the absence could be disability related you should consider what reasonable adjustments could be made in your workplace to help the employee. Obtain a specialist medical report if necessary
In all cases the employee should be told what improvement in attendance is expected and warned of the likely consequences if this does not happen.
Your absence policy should contain clear trigger points for which the consequences of reaching each point have been specified.
If there is no improvement in attendance, you should decide on an appropriate course of action.The surrounding facts and circumstances should be taken into account.
- The employee’s length of service;
- The nature of any illness, if applicable;
- The likelihood of a change in attendance;
- The availability of suitable alternative work where appropriate;
- The existence of any mitigating personal or domestic circumstances;
- The length and frequency of the absences and the periods of attendance between them;
- The need for the work to be done by a particular employee; and
- The impact of the absences on other employees.
Where dismissal action is considered, the proper disciplinary process should be followed. See our Disciplinary Checklist for further information.
Where absence is longer term and due to medically certificated illness, the issue becomes one of capability rather than conduct.
You should keep in regular contact with your employee.
Consider obtaining a medical report. If you wish to contact the employee’s doctor, you must notify the employee in writing that you intend to make an application and you must secure the employee’s consent in writing.
Where the employee states that he or she wishes to have access to the report, you must let the GP know this when making the application and at the same time let the employee know that the report has been requested.
The employee must contact the GP within 21 days of the date of application to make arrangements to see the report.
On the basis of the GP’s report you should consider whether alternative work is available. You are not expected to create a special job for the employee, nor to be a medical expert, but to take action on the basis of the medical evidence.
Where an employee refuses to cooperate in providing medical evidence, or to undergo an independent medical examination, the employee should be told in writing that a decision will be taken on the basis of the information available and that it could result in dismissal.
Consider the implications of disability discrimination and whether you need to make any reasonable adjustments. Adjustments could include a phased return to work, alteration of hours, making physical alterations to the workplace, providing new equipment or modifying existing equipment and reallocating duties.
Consider what part the ‘Fit for work’ service may play. Where an employee has been absent or is reported to be absent for 4 weeks or more, either the employee’s GP or the employer can make a referral for a return to work plan.
Where the employee’s job can no longer be held open, and no suitable alternative work is available, the employee should be informed of the likelihood of dismissal. The employer should follow a fair process and ensure the employee receives all contractual rights on termination.
This note is a summary of the issues and is not a substitute for detailed legal advice. It may contain information of general interest about current legal topics, but it should not be taken as providing legal advice on any of the topics covered.