Absence rarely makes the heart grow fonder!

Managing sickness absence from the workplace can be very painful for all concerned. Where the absence is from genuine sickness, it is often the most personal, emotional, sometimes embarrassing conversation to be had in the workplace. These need to be treated with sensitivity, patience and understanding. Where you are unsure if the absence is genuine it can feel like a game of cat and mouse. However, very often it can be hard to tell which is which. The increase in legislation around disability discrimination and unfair dismissals provides a threatening consequence if situations are badly managed. The expectation around the duty of care provided by employers to their employees, the sensitivity of discussing highly private and sometimes intimate personal details and the possibility of employees faking sickness intending to gain compensation makes for a complicated legal context. Here are three top tips to try to help navigate the maze of managing workplace absence:

Tip One:

Have a clear written absence policy

Being really clear up front about what is required of employees when reporting sickness absence and how to stay in touch while absent, is a good first step. Outline this as part of your induction process so that employees have the number they need to phone in their contacts.
Setting out what is likely to happen (i.e. return to work interviews, requests for GP reports, occupational health meetings) if there is frequent short term absence and / or long term absence, makes any future requests feel less personal or accusatory. Having suggested tolerance levels of absence for guidance can help justify taking action, as long as there is the caveat of managerial discretion where necessary.

Tip Two:

Monitor and record absences consistently……..and visually

Trying to manage absence levels is pretty difficult if you just aren’t sure when they were or what they were for. Having a consistent way of recording each absence occasion – for how long, for what condition etc. is going to be crucial to manage issues later. Recording them visually (in a calendar format) can also sometimes demonstrate patterns of absence that even the individual may not be aware of (or sometimes can follow the football away game fixtures!). Having a visual representation can help highlight the issue when meeting with the employee.

Tip Three:

Know the next steps and be prepared to take them

When ‘alarm bells start ringing’ and you feel that you need to start actively managing an employee’s absence record, be prepared to progress through the necessary return to work interviews and requests for medical practitioner information. This can be a time intensive process but invest time to gain appropriate advice early, as you may be able to ‘nip it in the bud’. Where reasonable adjustments are suggested, take them seriously and implement them where possible. Ignoring these suggestions may come back to bite you later. Get professional help from a HR professional to ensure that you manage each step fairly and efficiently to make maximum progress.
Generally, average annual sickness rates are declining. Everyone has sickness from time to time and it is better for employees to stay at home when poorly than potentially spreading sickness to others. However, there are also some employees that know how to play the game. Managing the situation sensitively, assertively and rigorously will not only progress the issue as quickly as possible but also send a message to all other employees that may be watching.

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Email: sandra.porter@hrdept.co.uk

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