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Managing sick leave

Staff absences can be disruptive and costly, which is why many employers have policies and systems in place to minimise the impact of sick leave.

There are a number of steps that employers can take to make sure that sickness and illness absence among employees has as little adverse effect on the running of the business as possible.

Managing absence and sickness

It is a good idea to introduce a sickness and absence policy in writing; the policy should detail employees' sick leave entitlements and what they must do if they reporting sick.

Contracts of employment should contain terms that allow the employer to keep absence records.

Most businesses should set also targets for absence across a year and monitor these.

When an employee comes back to work after a longish absence, it may pay to carry out a 'return-to-work' interview so that you can establish if there are any on-going issues. The employee may be experiencing domestic problems or difficulties at work that are contributing to their absence.

Employers should also use staff appraisals to find out, in a sensitive manner, if there are any attendance matters the employee may wish to discuss.

High absence rates may be caused by, say, difficult working conditions, bullying or a lack of adequate training, so it is important to conduct regular checks of the workplace, to identify inappropriate behaviour on the part of other employees and to make sure that workers have the skills and training needed to fulfil their duties.

Tracking absence and sickness

In larger firms, where not everyone may know everyone else, absence rates probably need to be measured and recorded. Setting up an absence monitoring system enables employers to calculate how many working hours have been lost to sick leave over a set time; to detect if sick leave rates are higher in some parts of the business than in others; to chart absence rates among individual workers; and to pick up on patterns of absence.

Monitoring should likewise note whether the absences are short-term, long-term, certificated or unauthorised.

These kinds of details will help build a picture of sickness absence. It will also allow an employer to see trends and tendencies. It could be that a repeatedly absent employee may be experiencing stress because of an increased workload or because they have been given responsibilities for which they do not feel adequately qualified to handle. Harassment or bullying may be another explanation; or a lack of motivation and reward.

Absence and sickness policies

There are a number of details that a sickness and absence policy should include.

It should set out when employees may legitimately take time off work other than for holidays.

It should make clear just what an employee must do if they are reporting off sick, and when a self-certificate or medical certificate is required.

It should provide information about sick pay and an employee's entitlement to it (statutory sick pay can be up for up to 28 weeks).

It should spell out what happens if an employee breaks the rules or when absence becomes a disciplinary matter.

Long-term and repeated absences

Persistent absence, perhaps due to long-term ill health or recurrent short-term sickness, may raise questions about whether an employee is capable of carrying out their role. In such cases, an employer may wish to find out more about the employee's state of health and to impose reasonable time limits for a return to work. The situation may be resolved by making adjustments to the employee's working conditions or tasks. Flexible working can help some employees better cope with balancing home and work life.

If an employee is absent on a regular basis for no convincing reasons, then an employer may choose to treat the absences as a matter of misconduct. Under such circumstances, the employee should be given oral and written warnings as to their behaviour and the chance to improve their attendance record. Dismissal should be a final option, and one to be taken only after the employee has been granted a fair opportunity to change their ways.

Fit notes

As from 6 April, the way that sick notes are framed changes.

Under the current rules, medical certificates or sick notes are given by doctors to employees, stating whether they are or are not well or fit enough to work.

The new rules mean that doctors will be able to issue a new certificate, or 'fit note', advising if an employee is unfit for work or if they may be fit for work.

In cases where an employee is deemed as 'may be fit for work', the doctor can provide the employer with advice about the employee's health and, if it is pertinent, with suggestions about the sort of changes - reduced hours, amended duties - that could allow them to return to work in some form.

Employers do not have to act on the doctor's advice, but doing so may stop long-term sick leave absences and prevent the loss of the skills and expertise of key staff members. Where employers are unable to make the adjustments necessary for an employee's return to work, they should treat the 'fit note' statement as a 'not fit for work' statement for purposes of sick pay.