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Managing employees on sick leave

Over the festive period, with people staying indoors, mixing with those they rarely see, it is to be expected that January would see an increase in employee sickness absence, and so it has proved, with employers contacting us to find out how to handle this issue and make sure they are compliant with the law. We examine this and outline what you need to do when you get that phone call or text.

When an employee calls in sick, this can trigger a number of responses. Normally, concern over the employee’s condition is quickly followed by an attempt to find out how long the employee is going to be absent, as well as the provisions that will need to be put in place to cover the absence.

For many instances of sickness absence, the problem is swiftly resolved as the employee returns to work and life continues as before. There will, of course, be necessary administrative tasks but apart from those, no significant disruption is experienced. This is not, however, the case, if the sickness absence is the harbinger of something more serious. Long-term sickness absence can be considerably more complex, and harder for you, as the employer, to deal with, particularly if it eventually leads to considering whether to dismiss that employee on the grounds of ill health capability.

Types of sickness absence

There are several different types of sickness absence.

  • Short-term – this includes absences lasting from a few days to up to 4 weeks

  • Long-term – this usually means an absence that lasts continuously for more than 4 weeks, although your company policy may define it differently

  • Persistent/intermittent – where employees have a few days off work at a time but at regular intervals

  • Disability-related – an employee can’t work because of an issue related to a disability.

  • Pregnancy-related – an employee is unwell because they are pregnant - for example, morning sickness or extreme fatigue

Sickness absence policy

You should have a clear policy for employees to follow if they cannot work because they are unwell. Make sure that all employees are aware of this and have signed to say they have read it. It is important that this is checked by someone with legal expertise in HR in order to avoid problems further down the line.

Sickness absence procedure

What should an employee do if they are not well enough to attend the workplace?

They should notify a designated person, such as HR or their line manager. Ideally, they should:

  • do this at least 1 hour before they are due to start work (although this can be defined differently in your company policy)

  • speak to the designated person on the phone rather than by email. On the phone, you can ask them how they are and what work needs to be reallocated

If necessary, the employee should supply evidence that they are unwell (see below)

Monitoring sickness absence

In order firstly to manage the sickness absence and secondly to contextualise it both with reference to other periods of absence and also to the workforce as a whole, you should record the following:

  • the reason(s) for the absence

  • the dates the employee was sick

  • any evidence supplied

  • if they followed the company policy

  • notes from the Return to Work meeting

Do not forget that when gathering this information, you will need to keep in mind the UK General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as some of what you are gathering will be personal information.

The more information you gather on sickness absence in the business as a whole, the easier it will be to see patterns and detail, which can highlight direct costs, such as sick pay and indirect costs, including:

  • overtime to cover the work of the absent person;

  • lost production;

  • reduced customer service;

  • the time managers or HR staff spend handling sickness absences.

In the long term, these records will also help when it comes to possible disciplinary action if the employee is suspected of abusing the absence policy, or if they are dismissed due to medical capability.

Good record keeping will also help you if:

  • you suspect an employee is abusing the staff absence policy and need evidence for disciplinary action, or

  • you dismiss an employee due to medical capability and they make a claim for unfair dismissal to an employment tribunal.

Evidence for sickness absence

It all depends on the type and duration of the absence.

For the first 7 days of sickness absence, employees can self-certify. If the absence is longer than 7 days, you can ask to see medical certification from a medical professional.

If you receive a fit note, you should:

  • check how long it applies for;

  • if the note says the employee may be fit for work, see if you can agree any changes with them to help them come back to work for the duration of the fit note;

  • take a copy of the fit note for your records. The employee should keep the original.

You may accept other types of evidence to show an employee is not fit for work – such as a note from a physiotherapist or consultant. Your company absence policy should state clearly what evidence you will accept.

Long term sickness resources

Several issues may arise when dealing with long-term sickness absence; we have blog posts which touch on some of the areas you need to consider.

What are the danger points and how can you avoid them?

How often, if at all, should you contact your employee while they are on sick leave?

If the employee returns to work after long-term sickness absence, there will be many areas where a careful and considerate approach will pay dividends

If you are concerned about how to handle employee sickness absence, or any issues arising from it, or you need expert guidance on what to put in your sickness absence policy, do not try to go it alone – speak to an experienced legal expert for advice.

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