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How To Manage Sickness In The Workplace

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Whether you work for a large or small organisation, employee absences will always have a significant impact on performance, especially if they are not managed properly.

According to UNUM, sickness in the workplace amounts to £18 billion a year lost in productivity and research shows that few employers are monitoring the cost of absences in their workplace.

If you are a HR Manager, HR Advisor or manage a team of people, knowing how to manage sickness in the work place will be vital to your role.

We asked our HR Business Partner Paul Boothroyd to talk through some strategies to help you.

Why is being able to manage sickness at work so important?

Employee absences are a cost to your company, can decrease employee morale and cause a greater risk of work-based error.

That is why it is so important to manage sickness in the workplace by having effective absence management frameworks in place.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) health and well-being survey 2019 identified that the most common causes of absences were: 

  • Poor mental health (59%),

  • Stress (54%)

  • Musculoskeletal injuries (54%)

  • Acute medical conditions (45%)

  • Work-/nonwork-related injuries/accidents (19%)

With more and more workers being diagnosed with cancer and poor mental health, it is a good idea to ensure that your organisation is clued up to manage these situations when they arrive.

The total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2018/19 was 602,000. And with 12.8 million days lost for these conditions over the same time period, managing mental health at work has never been more important.

Find out about how to manage cancer in the work place and your responsibilities as an employer.

Create a sickness absence policy to manage absence at work

Although having a sickness absence policy is not a legal requirement, we would strongly recommend for your company to have one.

A sickness absence policy should outline the procedures to follow on reporting absences and should explain how those absences are managed in your workplace. By having guidelines in place, you, as an employer, are helping to safeguard your staff.

Always include:

  • Contractual sick pay terms and their relationship with statutory sick pay

  • When, who and how employees should report their absence

  • Details of how employees provide a fit note from their doctor

  • Explain how absence reviews or trigger point systems will be used and the level of absence your company deems unacceptable

  • Explain how you reserve the right to require employees to attend an examination (upon consent) from an occupational health professional and request a report from the employee’s GP.

  • Explain how return to work interviews will be conducted

  • Explain how adjustments can be made to help returning to work easier for employees

Communicate with your employee on the first day of absence

One of the fundamental secrets to how to manage sickness in the workplace is communication. Your sickness absence policy should stipulate that your employees contact you or their line manager on the first day of absence.

We would recommend that you ask your employees to call, as having a conversation will help you gain a better understanding of their situation, an estimated timeframe in which they will be able to return to work and enable you to plan for any cover they may need.

For short term absences, check in with your employee at the end of the day too, as the employee’s proposed timeframe for returning to work may well change.

Measure and record every absence

The key to managing sickness effectively is to accurately monitor all employee absences and keep a record of the communication you have had relating to their absence and illness.

Include all documentation such as Fit Notes and medical evidence.  To do this, you will need an absence management system. Depending on the size of your company, you may want to work from Microsoft Excel or opt to use a software package instead.

Request a Fit Note for absences over seven days

For short-term absences, where the employee is out of work for seven days or less (including non-working days), they can self-certify their absence without providing any form of medical evidence.

However, when their absence exceeds the seven days, we strongly suggest that you request a Fit Note from your employee’s GP. When completing the Fit Note, the doctor will have a choice of two options: not fit for work or may be fit for work. If the doctor ticks the latter, the following adjustments may be selected:

  • Phased return to work

  • Amended duties

  • Altered hours

  • Workplace adaptations

As an employer, it is important that you discuss the appropriate support and adjustments with your employee as part of managing the return to work process.

Keep in contact with your employee whilst they are absent

When your employee is off work with long-term sickness, it is vital that you keep in touch.

How often you do this will depend heavily on the type of long-term sickness they have and ideally this should be decided on the first report of absence. 

For example, an appropriate level of contact for an employee with a broken leg would be weekly. However, if someone was off sick with stress, they may need less regular contact so as not to exacerbate their situation. In this case, we advise that you touch base with your employee as they near the end of their agreed period of absence.

With a growing number of workers being diagnosed with cancer and poor mental health, it is a good idea to ensure that your organisation is clued up to manage these situations when they arrive.

Find out more about how to manage cancer in the work place and your responsibilities as an employer.

The total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2018/19 was 602,000. And with 12.8 million days lost for these conditions over the same time period, managing mental health at work has never been more important.

Conduct return-to-work interviews

Return-to-work interviews are viewed as one of the most effective ways to manage sickness in the workplace. However, in order to have impact, they must be done consistently, for everyone and for all types of absence, both short-term and long-term.

Return-to-work interviews help to:

  • Discuss any underlying issues that may be causing the absence e.g. conditions or disabilities

  • Provide confirmation on whether the employee is ready to return to work

  • Verify that absence records are in-line with the employee’s record of events

  • Identify illegitimate absences

Return-to-work interviews are to be conducted in an informal and private manner to ensure that the employee feels as comfortable as possible, should they feel the need to disclose confidential information.

During the interview, it is important that you remain neutral and avoid challenging the employee without evidence to prove them otherwise.

Interviews should be held after every absence and if the employee is nearing their trigger point for an absence review, you need to inform them of this.

Provide support to help those with disabilities in returning to work

The legal definition of a workplace disability is “a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on [their] ability to do normal daily activities.”

As the employer, under UK employment law, you are required to provide “reasonable” adjustments to help those returning to work. To ensure the adjustments made are reasonable, we recommend taking advice from:

  • The employee themselves

  • The employee’s doctor

  • The Occupational Health Adviser

Examples of adjustments could include:

  • Phased return to work

  • Amended duties

  • Altered hours

  • Workplace adaptations

  • Counselling

We wish you the best of luck with managing sickness at work and fine-tuning your sickness policies.

You may also like:

Tackling Associative Discrimination – Managing Absence for people who are caring for others.

Mental Health – What employees need to know