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How to manage sickness absence: an employer’s guide

Posted by Supportis Legal Experts in HR and Employment Law

According to research from the Centre of Economic and Business Research, absence rates are predicted to cost the UK £18 billion in 2020, increasing to £26 billion in 2030.

Absence Management is always a difficult area of employment law for employers to navigate and is fraught with risk.

Most employers want to create an environment that fosters a good work ethic and a healthy environment which supports staff members when they are ill. However, employers are also concerned on the impact absences have on the profitability of the company.

The purpose of this article is to look at effective ways to manage poor absence, without putting your business at risk.

Is the illness long or short term?

When an employee is off sick it is vital to understand if the illness is long term or short term.

An employee who has persistent short term illnesses, (i.e. a cough, cold or the flu) could potentially be managed for their poor conduct via the business’ disciplinary procedures. An employee should make every effort to attend work, and calling in sick persistently could be classed as poor conduct. It would be advisable to consult your contract to see if there are any clauses regarding persistent absences and conduct.

However, if an employee has a long term illness they may be covered by the Equality Act 2010 which protects any employees from wrongful or unfair dismissals linked to their condition.

Treating employees less favourably because of a disability could be considered discrimination.

If the employee has a long term condition, then it may be appropriate to follow a medical capability process. The purpose of a medical capability process is to investigate the employee’s ability to perform his or her role in the long term. As this is a risky area of Employment Law, it is best to seek advice before coming to any such conclusions.

Return to work interviews

Investigating why an employee is off sick will help you determine if the absence is long term or short term. Return to work interviews are an excellent tool which will help employers conduct this investigation.

It is advised to hold a return to work interview after each absence as this creates a log of why that employee was absent. It is important that the manager gains a good understanding of the following areas within the meeting:

  • What the absence was for
  • Whether there are any underlying issues causing the absence
  • Whether the employee thinks the absence will reoccur
  • Whether the employee needs to seek guidance from a GP
  • If there is anything the workplace can do to help support the employees return to work

Have clear policies in place

While it is easy to point out employees with persistent absences over a short period, it is more challenging to identify this over a longer period.

Having a clear absence management policy that everyone must abide by can help proactively manage employees who go off with persistent absences. It may also be considered a deterrent for employees who are considering having lots of absences.

The policy should clearly set out the differences between short term persistent absences, and those absences that could be covered by the Equality Act.

Train Managers

Ensuring that all managers have a consistent approach to absence management is vital.

A poorly trained manager who does not understand the absence management process could inadvertently cause a claim at tribunal, especially if the employee is covered by the Equality Act.

Training managers to listen and talk to their employees could reduce the likelihood of the employee going off sick again in the near future. It could also help the company put in place suitable reasonable adjustments which could reduce an employee’s absence rate.

As stated previously, treating employees less favourably because of a disability could be considered discrimination, so training for managers will also reduce the risk of an employee bringing about a claim of discrimination at tribunal.

Consider an Employee Assistance Programme

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are beneficial for employees who need additional support or counselling. While not the cheapest option, EAPs can help employees deal with personal problems that could negatively impact on their performance at work. Most EAPS offer counselling and advice on mental health, financial difficulties and legal matters. They often extend this support to people living within the employee’s household.

According to research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), poor mental health was the most common cause of absence within the UK in 2017. Offering additional support in this area could help businesses reduce employee absence.


Absences within a business are inevitable, and no absence management policy will stop employees from needing time off to rest and recuperate after an illness.

However, a strong absence management policy executed with a consistent approach across the business can help reduce employees taking advantage of sick days and help protect vulnerable employees who need additional support.

If you don’t have an absence management policy in place or want to have your existing policy reviewed then Supportis can help – call one of ourEmployment Law Advisers on 0161 603 2156 to arrange your free initial consultation.

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