Sickness leave can be difficult for business owners to manage. In 2017 the cost of sickness to UK business was £900 million.
Is there a reason for sickness?
Even if there is a suspicion that someone is ‘pulling a sickie’, proper procedures need to be followed to ensure they don’t face possible costly employment tribunal cases. Keeping records of sickness, including correspondence and ‘fit’ notes is the best way to protect a business from this.
Some statistics suggest that the beginning of February sees an upsurge in employees downing tools in favour of duvets and TV. Many, though, might be hiding more significant issues.
Research on employee absence finds that those offered flexible working are less likely to report illegitimate absence. Suggesting that some employees might be pulling a sickie to give themselves the flexibility they need.
There is a high percentage of the workforce who are caring for elderly parents as well as children, meaning that employees needing flexibility for caring responsibilities has increased. Organisations are therefore going to be facing the high costs of absence for employees taking what would be considered as non-genuine absence unless they think outside normal working hours.
Secondly, the number of organisations seeing an increase in reported mental health problems among employees has remained at a high level over the last few years. It’s likely that some unexplained absence may be due to mental health issues that people may not feel comfortable discussing with their employer. As a nation we’re getting better at facing mental health issues but it relies on having an open organisation culture and a belief that you will have support, whatever your situation.
Instead of going into work and assuming every employee who doesn’t do the same is pulling a sickie, check whether you are providing enough flexibility for employees. Are you cultivating a work environment where employees feel they are able to be themselves, and have a healthy work/life balance. This will allow them to give their best at work. Understanding the demands on your workforce and making it possible for them to flex their work in a way that fits both their needs and the needs of the business will pay dividends in the long run.
People are going to be off sick from time to time. Most employees feel bad about letting down their colleagues and most employers are reasonably sympathetic about staff welfare.
Absence because of sickness, or another unexpected reason, can put your business in a tricky situation, particularly if you have no policies in place for dealing with it.
You need to know why staff are off, when they will come back and how you will deal with:
- short-term sickness absence which lasts less than a week
- repeated short-term sickness absences which may follow a pattern
- long-term sickness absence lasting several weeks or more
- unauthorised absence for other reasons.
All organisations will experience staff being absent from work. Managing absence in an appropriate way that is fair to the organisation and its staff is essential.
Why are people absent?
Sickness absence can have a mixture of reasons:
- an employee’s general physical condition
- working conditions including health and safety standards, levels of stress, harassment and bullying
- family or emotional problems, or mental health issues other than stress.
Absence from work can usually fit in to either of the following.
Planned or authorised absence
This is pre-planned and an employer can plan how to cover to avoid disruption. This could include annual leave, maternity leave and some types of long term sickness.
Unplanned or unauthorised absence
This absence can invariably be difficult for an employer to plan cover. Examples include short term sickness, travel disruption and domestic emergencies.
It can include when a worker fails to turn up to work without giving any reason or contact. If this happens an employer should attempt to contact their worker as soon as possible, including using an emergency contact. If contact cannot be made the employer should discuss the absence with the worker on their return.
If the employee provides no satisfactory reason for the absence and the failure to contact their employer, it could warrant disciplinary action.
Figures published by the Office for National Statistics, revealed the total number of days lost to sickness absence increased by 7% between 2017 and 2018. In 2018 141.4 million sick days were taken compared with 131.5 million in 2017.
According to Breathhr sickness report, flu, colds and viruses top the list of genuine reasons for absence. What is highlighted though are the number of people, by their own admission, pulling sickies when they were actually well. In 2017 the cost for this to UK businesses was £900 million.
Providing a fit note
If a worker is absent due to sickness for seven days or less they can self-certify their absence and need not provide any further medical evidence.
If a period of absence due to sickness lasts longer than seven calendar days(regardless of how many days they work each week) then a worker must provide their employer with a fit note.
A Fit Note (or The Statement for Fitness for Work), is a medical statement that GPs or hospital doctors issue. It aims to focus on what an employee may be able do at work rather than what they cannot do. A doctor can use a fit note to advise that a worker may or not be fit for work.
When stating that an individual may be fit for work, the GP will consider fitness for work in general, not fitness for a specific job that the employee is doing.
A doctor can suggest ways of helping the worker get back to work. This might mean recommending:
- a phased return to work
- flexible working
- amended duties
- workplace adaptations.
An employer should consider any recommendations made on a fit note. Accommodating the changes may help the employee be fully fit for work quicker. If the absence is due to a disability, an employer must consider making ‘reasonable adjustments’ to help them return to work and carry out their job.
If an employer is unable or unwilling to make the recommended changes then the employee may remain off sick for the duration of the fit note.
If a worker is absent for four or more days in a row they may qualify for Statutory Sick Pay – payable for 28 weeks.
Since April 2019 the rate for SSP has been £94.25 per week.
Some employers may offer contractual sick pay but it cannot be less than SSP.
If an employer offers contractual sick pay, the rate and how long it is payable for should be in the terms and conditions of employment.
Contact during sick leave
There should be regular contact between an employer and an absent employee. An agreement as to how often and how the contact should be made.
Contact is to:
- check on the employee’s well-being
- be clear about what pay the employee is receiving
- see if there is anything the employer can be doing to support the employee
- explain any updates or changes that are taking place within the organisation.
Return to work discussions
A return to work meeting is common at the end of a period of absence. In most organisations, discussions will be informal and is to:
- check the worker is well enough to be at work
- discuss the reason for the absence
- update the worker on anything that has happened at work while they have been absent.
If a worker has been absent from work often, a return to work discussion can be an opportunity to discuss any underlying problems causing this.
Short term absences are the most common cause of sickness absence. A worker should let their employer know as soon as possible if they are unable to attend work. Regardless of the length of the absence an employer should hold a return to work discussion once the employee is back at work.
An employer expects a satisfactory level of attendance from their staff. To monitor this an employer may set review points of a certain number of days or occasions of sickness absence.
If an employee exceeds these review points then the employer may consider issuing a formal warning. If absences continue, it could lead to further disciplinary action and ultimately dismissal.
An employer may notice a pattern of absence with a particular worker. This could be regularly late for work on a certain day or regular day off on short term sickness. An employer should use a return to work discussion to discuss the pattern with the worker and explore whether there is any underlying reason behind it.
Where an employer identifies issues they should consider whether there is any support or temporary adjustments that may help the worker attend work regularly and on time.
Long-term absence can be difficult because the illness may be serious, involve an operation and recovery time, or could be a mental health issue. These require a sympathetic approach.
An employer should:
- assess if colleagues can manage or whether they need to hire someone on a temporary contract
- consider asking the employee for permission to contact their GP to assess whether a return to work will be possible and if so when
- whether a return to the same work would be advisable
- whether a phased return would help
- whether the employee is disabled and therefore require reasonable adjustments
- whether a return to lighter, less stressful, work would be advisable
An employer should have an absence policy in place making it clear exactly what is expected if an employee is absent.
An absence policy should include:
- how to report absences, who and when to contact
- when an employee will be required to provide a fit note
- when return to work discussions will be held and by whom
- any review points that have been set by the employer
- whether the employer uses an Occupational Health referral scheme
- what pay the employee will receive and how long for.
A Contented Workforce
There are some legal issues to take into account, but making sure your staff are well, happy and working effectively is largely a matter of doing the right thing and using common sense.
For advice as an employer or an employee contact our Employment and HR department. For an employer we offer a fixed fee HR advice package providing your business with a retained HR and legal support service.
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