Government figures show that nearly one million workers are off sick for a month each year, while the Department for Work and Pensions estimates that employers face an annual bill of around £9 billion for sick pay and associated costs. Reena Sharma, employment solicitor at Colemans-ctts, provides an overview of procedures employers should follow when dealing with employee absence.
Employers should have a robust sickness absence policy in place. This should include absence reporting and recording procedures, the requirement to provide fit notes, and when to hold sickness absence meetings to discuss the individual’s progress and their return-to-work plans. Employers must deal with, and be seen to deal with, employees on sick leave fairly and consistently.
Sickness absence is usually dealt with either by line managers or the HR team. In either case, they should receive appropriate training on how to follow procedures.
When an employee calls in sick
- Find out the reason for the absence and when the employee is likely to return to work. Is the absence due to an accident at work? If so, it may require further investigation. If the absence is recurring, you may want to discuss what medical treatment, if any, the employee is receiving.
- The employee should be reminded of key points in the policy.
When an employee is off sick
- Employees who are on long-term sick leave, or who take frequent periods of short-term leave for the same condition, should be encouraged to contact their employer following any update on their medical condition.
- If sickness absence is recurring, consider if there is a particular pattern or underlying issue.
- If there is a concern about the length or frequency of the individual’s absences, there is a possibility that there may be an underlying medical condition; the employer may wish to engage the employee’s treating practitioners or arrange an independent medical assessment.
- Keep in contact with employees on long-term sick leave without being overbearing or intrusive.
- Ensure that accurate and legible records are kept of all meetings and correspondence.
- Acas recommends holding return-to-work interviews in all cases of absence. However, many employers prefer to hold them in cases of longer absence such as a week or more. This may be set out in the company procedures.
- For employees regularly taking periods of short-term absence, interviews can be an opportunity for management to raise any concerns with them.
- Consider adjustments to be made to enable the employee to return to work and any recommendations made by the employee’s medical or occupational health (OH) practitioner. Explore any issues arising regarding adjustments with the employee.
Support mechanisms to enable employees to return to work
Examples of adjustments that may facilitate return to work or otherwise assist employees on sick leave include:
- a phased return to work;
- varied start and finish times;
- the alteration or reallocation of duties;
- relocating an employee’s workstation; and
- purchasing equipment or software.
Employers should arrange regular one-to-one reviews to discuss progress, support and any problems once the employee has returned to work.
Sickness absence resources on XpertHR
Dealing with concerns over whether or not someone is genuinely ill
Any concerns as to whether or not someone’s conduct during sick leave suggests that they are not genuinely unfit for work should be properly investigated by way of a medical examination. If the employee is not fully fit, the medical report may suggest ways of rehabilitating the employee into the workplace. However, if there is evidence the employee is not genuinely sick or is deliberately exaggerating the extent of their incapacity, this should be dealt with as a case of misconduct in the normal way in accordance with the Acas code of practice.
Watch this space
To reduce the number of employees going on sick leave, the Government has recently announced a scheme – the Health and Work Service – to refer ill staff to OH specialists for medical assessments if they have been on sick leave for more than four weeks.
The OH specialist will attempt to draw up a plan and timetable to support the employee back into the workplace quickly.
HR practitioners and line managers should have honest and open discussions with absent employees, particularly when sickness absence is recurring. These discussions help to identify return-to-work barriers and underlying issues. They also help to outline the expectations of all parties involved, and help to monitor and manage sickness absence effectively.