Sickness absence: creating a policy

The nights have drawn in, the days are short and winter is truly upon us. The constant darkness and coldness might make taking a ‘duvet day’ or ‘throwing a sickie’ seem attractive.

Employee absence is proving increasingly costly for employers. While CBI statistics for 2007 will not be published until next year, the 2006 statistics make hard reading. Employees took an average of seven days off sick in 2006, according to a recent CBI/Axa absence survey. This is estimated to have caused a loss of 175 million working days and cost the UK economy £13.4bn.

It has also been well publicised that the UK – and particularly Scotland – bears the title ‘the sick man of Europe’. This reputation and the high absence statistics may deter future investment in our economy. While most absences are no doubt genuine, employers find the frequency of short-term absences, often the result of unauthorised long weekends, and the increase in mental ill health among staff, often leading to long-term absence, particularly difficult to manage.

Balancing act

The key task for employers is to manage the difficult balance between supporting those staff who are genuinely sick so that they can return to work, and, at the same time identifying those who abuse the system. Having a robust absence management policy is the first step to minimising absence and its associated costs.

Given that there are so many issues that employers now have to manage, it is perhaps easy to understand why some may overlook the importance of having a thorough absence policy. However, in light of the statistics now is as good a time as any to review it.

Managing absence in practice

Having a robust absence policy is one thing. Proactively managing absence in line with this policy is another. Communication with employees is important in the early stages of absence. This can help employers identify and prevent the Monday-to-Friday syndrome (where employees regularly take unauthorised long weekends) and to nip symptoms which might lead to lengthy absences in the bud.

While back-to-work interviews involve a time commitment they are a useful tool in managing absence. Employees may be less inclined to have an unauthorised long weekend if, on their return to work, they have to attend a meeting to confirm the reason for their absence. These types of meetings are also useful in identifying the causes of intermittent or recurring absences, for example work-related stress caused by a particular relationship with another employee in the office.

It’s worth remembering that a balance must be struck between taking a firm stance with disingenuous absences while supporting those who are genuinely ill. Care must be taken not to give the impression that employees are not allowed to be ill or that they should attend work when they are not fit to do so. This could lead to claims of harassment and might aggravate the employee’s condition.

However, it is also important that employees are aware that even if their absence is genuine, their employer will still consider certain frequencies or levels of absence unacceptable and further action may be taken (for example, dismissal on the grounds of capability – see page 18).

What employees have to understand in this instance is that the employer is not challenging the genuineness of the absence, but focusing on the unacceptable level of absence. Communication is again vital to achieving this.

More carrot, less stick

Many organisations are coming up with increasingly ingenious ways to entice their employees to aim for 100% attendance. The most attractive tool appears to be providing rewards for good attendance, such as special bonuses or non-cash incentives.

Schemes such as those where staff with exceptional attendance records are entered into a draw for a major prize, such as a car, have been great successes.

However, such an approach should be exercised with caution, particularly where an individual’s absence could be deemed to be caused by a ‘disability’ in terms of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Excluding employees with such conditions from such a scheme could constitute ‘less favourable treatment’ and expose the employer to a claim under the 1995 Act. Advice should be taken before such a scheme is implemented.

In response to an increasingly unhealthy UK workforce, employers are being encouraged to take a step back and focus on improving the health of their employees in general. Has your organisation considered replacing the sweet machine with free fruit and vegetables?

Whatever action you try to take to combat absence, that action can only be as good as the policy it is based upon. Getting an understandable and well-drafted policy in place will always be the first step in effective absence management.

Mandy Laurie, partner at law firm Dundas & Wilson

This is how I did it

Sally Jacobson, HR director atLondon Quadrant Housing

The greatest thing in reducing sickness absence is a positive working culture where staff really enjoy their jobs. They are then less likely to take casual sick leave.

About 15 years ago we began to really crack down on casual sickness. We’ve had it under control for some time now and keep a close eye on it as it’s one of the most important key performance indicators. Sickness absence gives you an indication of the health of your organisation. We have 1.9% sickness absence, which is unbelievably low, and this represents both short-term and long-term absence.

Back in 2003 we noticed that about 100 employees had taken no sick leave so we wanted to come up with something where those with 100% record could be rewarded. If employees are off, genuinely sick, then we will do all we can to support them, but it’s the casual sickness that cripples an organisation.

Anyone with 100% attendance record will receive an extra day’s holiday – in agreement with their manager – and we will also allow them to buy back five days of holiday leave. Since 2003, we’ve noticed numbers with 100% attendance have now steadily gone up to 322.

Any employee who takes off even half a day will have to jointly fill in a form with their manager.

If there are three episodes of casual sickness within a six-month period we will take a proactive approach and their manager will investigate to see if there is any problem.

As part of our policy we encourage all of our managers to keep in touch regularly with staff who are on sick leave and will do anything we can to help people get back to work, including changing job roles if necessary. We constantly look at our sickness absence policy and make sure we keep up-to-date with any changes in the law and receive suggestions from staff.

In our sector, we are housing the most vulnerable people in our society. This adds enormously to job satisfaction – our staff are really changing peoples lives, and this also helps to reduce absence.

Is your absence policy robust enough?

A strong policy will include:

  • Clear absence notification procedures
  • Confirmation that failure to follow the notification procedures could result in loss of sick pay and disciplinary action
  • Details of the information required from an employee to the employer to support their absence
  • Information about back-to-work meetings
  • Arrangements for the employer to consult the employee’s doctor or to ask the employee to attend an independent medical examination
  • Rules about contact during absence
  • Rules about payment during absence.


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