Short-term sickness absence policy: a 15-step guide for HR

OJO Images/REX/Shutterstock
OJO Images/REX/Shutterstock

Putting together a short-term sickness absence policy can be one of the most daunting tasks an HR professional can face. We take you step by step through what a typical short-term sickness absence policy should contain.

1. Clarify the short-term sickness absence policy’s purpose and scope

Employers should introduce their short-term sickness absence policy by reiterating the need for a balance between:

  • the genuine need for employees to take time off work because of ill health; and
  • the need to maintain the workplace’s efficiency and productivity, so that additional burdens are not placed on an absent employee’s colleagues.

It is important to make clear when the short-term sickness absence will not apply.

The organisation might suspect there to be misconduct involved (for example, that the employee is not really sick).

In that case, the employer can apply its separate disciplinary procedure instead.

 

2. Explain some of the terms used in the short-term sickness absence policy

The introduction to the policy can set out some key definitions, for example what actually counts as “short-term sickness absence” and when the employer’s separate, long-term sickness absence policy applies.

Some other key terms in the short-term sickness absence policy may also need to be explained.

For example, a “formal review period” could be defined as a period during which an employee is required to show an improvement in his or her sickness absence levels.

 

3. Set out expectations for managers dealing with short-term sickness absence

It is a good idea to set out early on in the policy line managers’ responsibilities in relation to short-term sickness absence.

Podcast: Short-term sickness absence in the workplace
XpertHR employment law editors Sarah Anderson and Ellie Gelder explore the practical steps that employers can take when dealing with short-term sickness absence.

Among other things, employers can expect line managers to:

  • maintain proper records of employees’ sickness absence, including obtaining employees’ self-certification for sickness of seven calendar days or less, and medical evidence for sickness of more than seven days;
  • balance supporting a genuinely ill employee and encouraging better attendance in future;
  • seek medical advice where appropriate, including obtaining the employee’s consent required before seeking a medical report; and
  • conduct return-to-work interviews where required.

It is also wise to remind line managers of the duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees.

 

4. Provide employees with guidelines on short-term sickness absence

What counts as “long-term sickness absence”?

According to XpertHR research, employers commonly define long-term sickness absence as absences lasting 28 or more calendar days.

Employees should also be reminded of what they should do if they are off work sick. An employee would typically be expected to:

  • telephone their line manager as soon as they can at the start of the working day;
  • continue to keep their line manager apprised of the situation while they are off sick, for example by ringing in at the start of each subsequent day of absence;
  • provide the necessary documentation, for example a self-certification form for sickness of seven calendar days or less and medical evidence for sickness of more than seven days; and
  • attend a return-to-work interview where required.

Employees can be reminded that the more honest and open they are with their line manager about the reasons for their absence, the more support the employer will be able to provide.

 

5. Set out your sickness absence notification and evidence requirements

What if an employee goes home sick during the day?

You could count sickness absence that begins part way through the day as one full day’s sickness absence if the employee leaves before completing 50% of his or her working day.

Where sickness absence begins after the employee has completed 50% of his or her working day, this could be recorded as half a day’s absence.

Employers should set out a clear procedure for employees to follow when they are not attending work because of ill health.

Typically, the employer will require employees to ring in sick to his or her line manager at the start of the working day.

Employees can be required to ring in sick on each subsequent day of sickness absence, although employers should be flexible about this.

For example, a daily call may not be possible if the employee has been hospitalised.

This section of the policy can also be used to explain what evidence the employee needs to provide.

If sickness is for seven calendar days or less, self-certification is sufficient.

For sickness lasting longer than seven calendar days, medical evidence is required, normally in the form of a doctor’s fit note, also known as a “statement of fitness for work”.

 

6. Explain employees’ sick pay entitlement

This is one of the first things an employee on sick leave will want to know about.

When does statutory sick pay increase?

Statutory sick pay normally increases annually on 6 April.

The Government announces the new rate the previous December.

Employees who meet the eligibility and evidence requirements and are incapacitated for work for four or more consecutive days are entitled to statutory sick pay.

Statutory sick pay is paid at a flat rate, for a maximum of 28 weeks in any one period of incapacity for work.

Some employers will offer a more generous contractual sick pay scheme.

 

7. Time off for medical appointments: explain your organisation’s rules

It may come as a surprise, but there is relatively little in UK law about time off for medical appointments. This means that employers are free to formulate their own rules.

Antenatal appointments

While there is no general statutory right to time off for medical appointments, one important exception relates to antenatal appointments.

A pregnant employee has the right to reasonable paid time off work to attend antenatal appointments.

Meanwhile, a prospective father, or the partner of a pregnant woman, can take unpaid time off to attend up to two antenatal appointments.

Employers could have a policy of encouraging employees to arrange appointments in their own time or at a time of minimum disruption.

However, it is good practice for employers to be flexible. Employers could allow a reasonable amount of time off work at other times when it is not possible for a medical appointment to be arranged in the employee’s own time.

If an employee is given paid time off to attend a medical appointment, the employer can require the employee to make up the time later.

HR professionals and line managers should be aware that there are special rules for antenatal appointments.

 

8. Set out actions required on return to work after sickness absence

The short-term sickness absence policy should set out what employees and line managers need to do following sickness absence.

For employees, a key task is to either:

  • fill in a self-certification form (where the sickness is seven calendar days or less); or
  • provide medical evidence (where the sickness is longer than seven calendar days).

For line managers, a key task is to check the employee’s absence record to see if:

  • absence levels mean that formal action is required under the organisation’s absence management policy; and
  • there are any suspicious patterns of absence, for example frequent absences on Fridays, Mondays, or immediately before or after bank or public holidays.

The line manager can invite the employee to an informal return-to-work interview, which has long been recognised as a useful way to monitor sickness absence levels.

 

9. Pregnancy and disability: why these are special cases

To avoid the risk of a discrimination claim, it is important for your organisation’s short-term sickness absence procedure to treat absences related to pregnancy-related illness and disability differently.

The safest course is to exclude sickness absence that is pregnancy related when tallying an employee’s sickness absence record for the purposes of managing absence.

When managing a disabled employee’s absence, employers should be on high alert to the risk of a claim for discrimination arising from disability under the Equality Act 2010.

To dismiss a disabled employee or give him or her a warning for poor attendance may amount to discrimination arising from disability.

 

10. Spell out the relationship between sickness and holiday

The case law on the interplay between sickness absence and annual leave has long caused headaches for HR professionals.

The short-term sickness absence policy should cover two main scenarios:

  • What happens if an employee is sick or injured while on holiday?
  • Does an employee on sick leave continue to accrue holiday?

Employers should remember that case law has established that:

  • an employee who suffers ill health while on holiday can transfer to sick leave and request to take the holiday at a later date; and
  • employees continue to accrue annual leave during sick leave.

In both scenarios, employers are entitled to require employees to follow a strict procedure. For example, he or she could be required to produce medical evidence of ill health while on holiday, even if the employee was abroad at the time.

 

11. Have a procedure in place for obtaining medical advice

Your organisation’s obligations under the Access to Medical Reports Act 1988 and the Data Protection Act 1998 should be flagged up to line managers, the HR department and the occupational health department.

It is vital that an employer obtains an employee’s consent when seeking a medical report from the employee’s own doctor or the employer’s occupational health department.

The short-term sickness absence policy should make clear that an employee’s medical information should be kept confidential and stored securely.

 

12. Sickness absence management: stage 1 trigger point

A system of trigger points and warnings is an essential part of a fair sickness absence management process.

What are employers’ typical absence level targets?

In XpertHR research from 2012, the median target for employers was approximately eight days, when measured by days of absence per employee.

This figure is virtually unchanged since a similar survey was carried out by XpertHR in 2007 – at that time the median was also eight days.

Typically, the stage 1 trigger point will occur after an employee has had a set number of days’ sickness absence, or a set number of periods of absence, in the previous 12 months.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” trigger system and the trigger points that the employer chooses should be carefully thought through.

For example, an employer conducting a drive to reduce absence across the organisation may wish to set the trigger point at a lower number of days.

An employer that has not traditionally had a problem with absence levels may wish to set the trigger point at a higher number of days.

If an employee hits a stage 1 trigger point, the employer should arrange a formal meeting with him or her to discuss absence levels.

The employee could be given a warning about his or her attendance levels, and be given the opportunity to improve attendance over a set period of time.

The employee should be allowed to appeal against any warning issued.

 

13. Sickness absence management: stage 2 trigger point

An employee on a stage 1 warning could be moved to stage 2 if his or her attendance levels fail to improve.

If an employee hits a stage 2 trigger point, the employer should arrange a second formal meeting with him or her to discuss the continued unsatisfactory absence levels.

The employee could be given a second warning about his or her attendance levels, and be given a further opportunity to improve attendance over a set period of time.

The employee should be allowed to appeal against any warning issued.

 

14. Sickness absence management: stage 3 trigger point

Right to be accompanied

Employees should be given the right to be accompanied by a fellow worker or trade union representative at formal sickness absence review meetings that could result in action, and during any appeal hearing.

If an employee’s attendance levels fail to improve despite two previous warnings, the employer could move him or her to a stage 3 final formal review.

At this point, dismissal may be a real possibility, and the employer should arrange a third formal meeting with him or her to discuss the continued unsatisfactory absence levels.

The employee should be allowed to appeal against dismissal, if that is what the employer decides to do.

 

15. Provide an appeal stage against action for sickness absence levels

The very final stage of the employer’s short-term sickness absence policy should cover appeals.

The policy should offer an employee an appeal against any action taken, including a warning.

If an employee is dismissed because of his or her sickness absence levels, it is important that he or she can appeal against this decision.

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