Managing Sickness

January 6, 2010

Staff sickness absence is a national problem covering all sectors of employment. Estimates put the annual cost to the UK in lost hours and productivity at over £12bn, with an average cost of £495 per employee. While for many organisations the cost of sickness absence may be partly a notional figure – struggling on with reduced staffing is often possible, especially in the case of short-term absences, – if left unmanaged and allowed to become the norm for some employees, it can lead to morale issues amongst those who always have to fill in or cover, loss of productivity, poor service to customers and a real cost to the business.

In the following blog we show how you can proactively manage sickness to reduce the amount of time being taken and what steps to take when a sickness absence is no longer acceptable to the business.

1/ Get a Policy.

A sickness policy allows you to lay down some rules on:

  •  When time off might be permitted (Jury services, emergencies involving dependants etc)
  • How and when staff must notify you if they are sick, late or absent for other reasons
  • When they should submit self certification or medical certificate (bearing in mind the statutory rules)
  • If you have any procedures about using a company approved doctor
  • If and when they would be expected to attend a return to work interview – see below
  • What will happen if they do not adhere to the procedure.
  • What records will be kept and by whom – see below

You can also include:

  • That if there is good reason to believe an employee is abusing the system disciplinary action will be taken
  • That while genuine absence through sickness will be treated sympathetically, excessive absence can result in dismissal after proper procedures have been followed.

2/ Keep a record

You must keep information about absence and sickness for statutory sick pay purposes. However to have be effective in managing sickness you will want to keep more details, to be able to monitor who is off when, why and how often. Keeping records will let you find out:

  • Where absence occurs most
  • How often individual employees are absent
  • If there is any pattern to absence (eg the morning after a football international etc)
  • How much actual working time is being lost

Only when you have this information can you investigate the reasons and take appropriate action.  You may discover that the absence is stress related due to heavy workloads on certain days, or find there are other issues that are causing the issue. As such you may be able to take away or devise a method of working round the problem to encourage a reduction in lost hours.

3/ Return to work Interviews.

Although these may sound a little over the top, they are actually very effective in gaining an understanding why staff are taking time off and in deterring people from taking a sicky. If they are carried out sensitively they can help find out if there are other issues (bullying, domestic problems, stress etc). Likewise if someone wakes up and thinks “I can’t be bothered going to work today”; knowing that you’ll be asking what was wrong with them, whether you can do anything to help in the future and pointing out that you’ve noticed they are often sick on a Monday, will give them second thoughts about skiving off work.

4/ Managing the situation when it becomes unsustainable.

For many smaller employers there is little or no elastic in the staff cover. Each member of staff has their own specific duties and responsibilities. A long term or oft repeated absence from work can have a serious effect on the business. There are two types of issues that need to be addressed with the staff member causing the problem:

  • Capability
  • Conduct

Capability Issue

Where an employee genuinely suffers from long term ill health or repeated related bouts of short term absence you should deal with it as a capability issue.  This should be dealt with very sensitively.

  • Investigate and monitor their absence record
  • Keep in touch with them to find out about their health and chances of return
  • Set a time limit on assessing the situation and ensure the employee knows this
  • Let them know if their job is at risk and WHY
  • Get their permission to obtain medical reports to help in your decision making
  • Consider making adjustments to their job to help them return. You will have to do this if their illness amounts to a disability.

Only if their continued absence is having a detrimental effect and you have done all the above should you take the final step of dismissal due to their inability to carry out their contractual duties

Conduct Issues

When an employee is often absent or late for unexplained or unconvincing reasons it becomes an issue of conduct and should be dealt with through your disciplinary process. Always remember to fully investigate the situation though:

  • Return to work interviews
  • Following up any unexplained absence
  • Making them phone in everyday of absence

Always give the member of staff the chance to improve their performance. However if they do not, you may consider dismissal (after the full disciplinary process has been exhausted).

If you would like to discuss managing sickness, disciplinary procedures or a specific instance please email the team

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