Managing sickness absence

Employees taking time off for illness can be problematic at times, but it should be handled proactively, reasonably and fairly, as Sarah Dillon explains

Operational procedures

The starting point is ensuring that the business has a sickness absence policy. This must be in writing and communicated to employees, and must clearly set out the expected standards of attendance and reporting requirements, as well as information on sick pay, evidence of incapacity and the overall process.

HR departments and managers who may be handling sickness absences – including taking calls from sick employees – must also be trained in the process so they have the required knowledge and understand what information they need to collect.

When an employee calls in sick, the manager should ask them the reason for their absence, the likely date of return and, if appropriate, confirm contact details. Where different departments are in contact with an employee, it is important to have a ‘joined up’ approach so the employee does not receive contradictory messages.

In addition, the company policy should outline what evidence of incapacity is deemed ‘acceptable’. Most organisations require employees to ‘self certify’ for seven days of absence or less. If the absence continues beyond this point, the staff member can be required to obtain a doctor's certificate – currently referred to as a ‘fit note’.


It is important to keep in regular contact; however, the amount of contact will often depend on the employee's job, and the size and culture of the business.

Contact could, for example, be limited to a regular telephone update once a fortnight where an employee is on long-term sick, or a shorter call conducted every day.

Knowing an employee’s rights

Managers must understand the company entitlements to company sick pay (CSP) and statutory sick pay (SSP).

Subject to qualification, SSP is the minimum amount of sick pay that all employees are entitled to. The employee’s contract of employment, or company sickness policy, will set out any entitlement to CSP and the levels – such as full pay, half pay and the time periods they are paid. 

Maintaining a record

Keeping a paper trail is one of the most important steps for an employer to undertake. It is vital to ensure an accurate and legible record is kept of all meetings and correspondence, as well as retaining file notes of telephone conversations, and records of telephone messages left.

Calls and meetings should be followed up with letters summarising the discussion, attempts taken to contact the employee and any next steps agreed.

Enabling a smooth return

Acas recommends that businesses carry out return to work interviews whenever an employee has been absent from work. Such discussions can be useful as it allows the employee to explain the reasons for their absence, ensuring they understand the sick policy and decide whether any further action needs to be taken. 

A person is disabled for discrimination law purposes if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Employers are subject to a positive duty to consider – and make – reasonable adjustments for disabled employees. If it is possible that an employee has a disability and may require adjustments, you should consider seeking a medical report and/or adjust. 

It is important to understand that a report is not needed in every case – especially where a need for adjustment is clear and obvious.

When frequency, or levels, of sickness absence become a problem, employers will need to consider carrying out a formal procedure. To help identify when this should take place, businesses can include ‘trigger points’ in their sickness policies. These can clearly underline when a formal procedure will apply and must take place; for example, if there have been a certain number of occasions of absence within a 12-month period or single absences of more than a certain number of days. 

Sarah Dillon is a director and senior employment lawyer at ESP Law