In the fourth of our HR Improve articles, we consider the importance of effective absence management and what steps employers should take to support employees whilst minimising the impact of sickness absence on the organisation.
All organisations will experience employees taking sickness absence at one time or another. The Office for National Statistics found that 149 million days of work were lost in 2021 due to sickness absence. This can prove to be costly for an employer, due to the loss of valuable resources whilst the employee is off sick, coupled with the management time spent dealing with the absence and the costs of arranging temporary cover for the sickness absence. For these reasons, it is vital that employers effectively manage both short and long-term periods of sickness absence. We set out below the key steps employers can take to achieve this.
Set out clear terms and procedures in a sickness absence policy
Employers should have a clear absence management policy to ensure that employees understand the procedure to be followed and the steps that will be taken when an employee is off sick. The policy should also stipulate the potential consequences if the correct procedure is not followed to reduce the opportunity for disputes. Employers should ensure that their sickness absence policy is kept up to date to prevent provisions becoming outdated and ineffective.
Ensure the absence is accurately monitored
Keeping an accurate record of an employee’s absence enables an employer to identify any problems or patterns with absence levels that may need addressing early on, as well as signposting potential underlying health issues requiring further investigation or medical evidence. It is also advisable to record the impact which the absence is having on the business, such as any delays to projects or additional demands placed on colleagues. These will help inform decisions around how much absence can be supported.
Communicate with the employee
Communication is key to effective performance management. If the employee’s absence is left to drift and no communication is made for a significant period, this can create problems for the employer to manage the situation. For example, the employee may raise a formal grievance if they do not feel supported and it can be harder for an employer to take action where absence has not been addressed. It is important that the employer remains in contact with the employee during periods of absence, although this is not a legal requirement. This not only allows the employer to understand the reason for the absence and whether a return to work is possible, but also provides an opportunity to communicate with the employee what steps will be taken by the organisation. Regular communication will also highlight any follow-up action required by the employer.
Implement a return-to-work plan
This is particularly important when an employee is returning to work after a longer period of absence. The employer and employee should work together to create a suitable plan to facilitate the employee’s return to work. The employer should establish whether any changes are needed to the employee’s role to allow them to return or whether there are any other alternative roles which might be more suitable. For example, it may be appropriate for the employee to be placed on a phased return to work plan to ease them back into the workplace. Any plans will need to be tailored to meet the individual needs of the employee. The employer should be flexible when considering an employee’s return to work plan, but also remain mindful of business needs.
Duty to make reasonable adjustments
Remember that there is a legal onus on employers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees. Employers should always be mindful of the potential for the employee to have a disability and the importance of medical evidence in establishing whether this is the case. It is useful to obtain this early on so that the employer is aware of whether the duty is triggered and can build this into the absence management process.
Occupational Health reports can be a very useful tool in establishing the above, and Occupational Health will usually suggest proposed adjustments to facilitate the employee’s return to work. Possible adjustments could include:
- varied start and finish times;
- reallocation/alteration of duties;
- purchasing specialist equipment to assist the employee;
- reallocating workspace;
- providing temporary support, such as a temporary “buddy” to assist the employee at work; and
- moving the employee into a different role.
It is important to consider any adjustments suggested by an employee or Occupational Health. Employers should document all adjustments considered, even if not implemented (and record on what basis such a decision was made). If an adjustment is to be made, employers should make clear to the employee how long an adjustment will be in place – is it temporary or permanent? It is good practice to allow an initial trial period and then review the effectiveness after a reasonable period (i.e., six weeks) to assess whether the adjustment is a reasonable one to make.
High levels of sickness absence can have a big impact on an employer’s business and therefore dismissal on the grounds of ill-health may be necessary. Given the potential awards available to employees in the employment tribunal, it is essential that employers manage sickness absence and any subsequent dismissal correctly. The current cap on the compensatory award for an unfair dismissal claim for employees dismissed on or after 6 April 2023 is £105,707 or their annual salary, whichever is lower, and there is no limit to the amount of compensation that can be awarded where there has been a finding of discrimination in the employment tribunal.
Although sickness absence falls within the potentially fair reason of capability, a fair procedure is still required to ensure that the employee is not dismissed unfairly. This will involve warning the employee of the consequences of their absence, obtaining up to date medical information and considering alternatives before reaching a decision to dismiss.