How to manage short-term sickness absence

High levels of short-term sickness absence negatively impact management workload, business performance and team motivation. Effective absence management is therefore crucial for businesses to thrive. We outline the key considerations for employers.

Set a policy

A clear policy for employees setting out both expected standards of attendance and reporting obligations in the event of absence is essential. The role of managers in applying the policy should also be clearly outlined. Non-sickness related policies, with provisions for leave requests, should be signposted within and publicised alongside the sickness absence policy. It is important that the correct policy is used and that ‘sickness’ isn’t a catch-all for any and all types of absence. If absences aren’t recorded correctly, they can’t be properly managed!

Be pro-active, not reactive

Employers shouldn’t wait for absences to reach a problematic level before acting – return to work interviews and regular updates are useful tools which should be utilised to manage absence before a problem arises. For example, where an employee has been absent, a short return to work interview can both help an employer understand the reasons for the employee’s absence as well as make clear to the employee that the absence hasn’t gone unnoticed. In some cases, the fact that the absence is acknowledged can make an employee feel more valued as the time has been taken to ‘check in’. In other instances, the fact that the absence has been addressed may make an employee think twice before phoning in sick after a particularly ‘heavy’ weekend! Requiring an employee to provide regular updates (where appropriate) can also have similar effects.

Follow a process for problematic absences

Where an employee has a high level of short term absence, steps should be taken to address this. Generally speaking, this will involve the following (please note that specific problem areas are dealt with later on in in this article):

  • Having a meeting with the employee to notify them that if their absence levels don’t improve, a formal process will need to be commenced. Whilst this initial meeting wouldn’t usually be part of the formal absence management process, it should still be documented.
  • Inviting the employee to a formal meeting to discuss their level of absence (assuming absence levels haven’t improved). An employer will need to consider whether it is appropriate to give the employee a first written warning. Depending on the circumstances, it may be appropriate to obtain medical evidence at this stage to see if there is an underlying health condition (see below). If a warning is given, it should be confirmed in writing and clear attendance targets set (including a review period) so that the employee knows what is expected of them and the consequences of a failure to improve.
  • If the employee’s absence levels still do not improve and they do not meet the set attendance targets where there is no underlying condition, a second meeting should be arranged. Again, consideration will need to be given as to whether medical evidence is required and whether it is appropriate to give the employee a written warning (an employer would normally consider a final written warning at this stage). As above, if a warning is given, it should be confirmed in writing and clear attendance targets set (including a review period) so that the employee knows what is expected of them.
  • If the employee continues to fall below the required attendance levels, another meeting should be arranged to discuss matters with the employee. At this stage, it is likely that an employer will want to consider whether it would be reasonable to dismiss the employee in the circumstances.

Where an employee doesn’t have two years’ service, an employer may decide to shortcut their formal absence management process. However, before an employer does so, they will need to make sure that they have assessed whether there are any other areas of risk, for example, those detailed below.

Be alive to potential risks

Where an employee does have a lot of short-term absences, employers need to be alive to potential areas of risk, for example:

  • Does the employee’s absence record indicate that they have an underlying health condition? If so, could that condition amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010? If the employee is disabled, then reasonable adjustments may need to be considered and it may be necessary for the employer to seek medical advice. If an employer blindly follows its absence management process in relation to a disabled employee, it is likely to face a disability discrimination claim.
  • Is the employee pregnant? Employees are protected from unfavourable treatment as a result of pregnancy-related illnesses. Disciplining a pregnant employee for pregnancy-related absences would be unlawful pregnancy and maternity discrimination.
  • Is there a contractual procedure that needs to be followed? Whilst contractual procedures are rare, if an employer has a contractual sickness absence policy, this will need to be followed to avoid the potential for a breach of contract claim.

Think about how to engage

It is up to the employer to set the tone for the process. If an employer leads with sympathy and the aim of supporting employees back into work, this helps to create a positive working environment in which colleagues are motivated to perform at their best

It is important that sickness absence management is not a box-ticking exercise, as this is unlikely to engage employees and can also mean that underlying issues go under the radar. A supportive culture is more likely to allow for open, honest and constructive conversations.

Need help?

Our Shoosmiths Academy course on Managing Sickness Absence can provide you with in-depth critical information on legally compliant sickness absence procedures and practical guidance on dealing with typical complexities. Click here for further information.


This information is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. Please contact us for specific advice on your circumstances. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.



Read the latest articles and commentary from Shoosmiths or you can explore our full insights library.