How to manage sickness in the workplace

How to manage sickness in the workplace
How to manage sickness in the workplace

posted 22 Mar 24

No matter the size of your business, employee absences will have an impact on performance, especially if they aren’t managed properly.

To demonstrate the point, UNUM found that sickness in the workplace amounts to £18 billion a year lost in productivity. However, even though this is the case, relatively few employers monitor the cost that absences have on their business.

If you’re a manager or work in HR in any capacity, managing sickness absence will be a major part of your role. Let's explore why this is the case and some strategies to help you.

Why is Being Able to Manage Sickness at Work so Important?

Employee absences cause a financial blow to your company, can decrease employee morale, and cause mistakes in the workplace. That is why effective absence management frameworks are important and why you should take the tracking of employee absences seriously.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Health and Wellbeing Report 2022 identified the most common long-term sickness absence causes include:

  • Poor mental health (57%).
  • Musculoskeletal injuries (46%).
  • Stress (38%).
  • Acute medical conditions (37%).
  • COVID (26%).

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2020 was 602,000. And with 12.8 million days lost to these conditions over the same period, managing mental health and wellbeing at work has never been more essential.

Create a Sickness Absence Policy to Manage Absences at Work  

Although having a sickness absence policy is not a legal requirement, we would strongly recommend that your company has one. But what should this kind of policy include?

A sickness absence policy should outline the procedures to follow when it comes to reporting absences, and it should explain how absences are managed in your workplace. To safeguard both the employer and employees of an organisation, your sickness absence policy should include:

  • Contractual sick pay terms and their relationship with statutory sick pay.
  • When, how, and to whom employees should report any absence.
  • Details of how employees provide sick and fit from their doctor.
  • Explanations of how absence reviews or trigger point systems will be used and how different lengths of absence are treated differently.
  • Details of 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.
  • An explanation of how return-to-work interviews will be conducted.
  • Cover the adjustments that can be made to help employers return to work.

Communicate With Your Employee on Their First day of Absence

One of the fundamental secrets of managing sickness in the workplace is communication. As such, any sickness absence policy should stipulate that your employees contact you or their line managers on the first day of absence.

Instead of texting or emailing regarding an absence, we recommend you speak to your employees over the phone. Doing so will help you understand why they aren’t able to come to work and when they’ll return, and it’ll help you plan more effectively if their absences are long-term or they’re working on a time-sensitive project.

For short-term work absences, check in with your employee at the end of the day, as their proposed timeframe for returning to work may have changed.

Measure and Record Every Absence

Another important aspect of absence management is to accurately monitor all employee absences and keep a record of the communication you’ve had regarding their absence and illness.

Include all documentation such as a fit note and medical evidence, too, as part of your absence management system. Excel is adequate for this if you have a small to medium-sized business, but there are different software packages available for larger businesses that have more staff to track.

Request a fit Note for Absences over Seven Days

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

However, when their absence exceeds seven days, we suggest that you request a “fit note” from their GP. When completing the fit note, the doctor will have a choice of two options: “not fit for work” or “maybe 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.

Every individual is unique so you should discuss any support and adjustments with employees rather than implementing changes without their approval.

Keep in Contact With Employees While They are Absent

When an employee is off work with a long-term illness, you should keep in touch with them regularly. Defining how regular this is will depend on the type of long-term illness they have and ideally, this will be decided between employer and employee 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 is off sick with stress, they may need less regular contact so they can recover in peace. In this case, we advise that you touch base towards the end of their agreed period of absence to clarify how they feel and what can be done to ease their transition back into the workplace.

Conduct Return-to-work Interviews

Return-to-work interviews are viewed as one of the most effective ways to manage sickness in business. When carried out consistently, return-to-work interviews help you:

  • Discuss any underlying issues that may be causing the employee’s absence.
  • Confirm 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 must be conducted informally and privately to ensure that the employee feels comfortable enough to speak openly and discuss confidential information. During the interview, you must remain neutral and avoid challenging the employee.

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

Workplace disabilities can have long-term, substantial negative effects on an employee’s ability to carry out everyday activities, so as the employer, you need to provide “reasonable” adjustments to help those returning to work under UK employment law.  These may include the adjustments we’ve listed above or counselling in some form.

To ensure the adjustments you make are reasonable, we recommend taking advice from the employee, their doctor, and the occupational health adviser in your business.