How employers can best manage sick leave

Although short-term absence can be disruptive, if managers communicate with the employee and address any issues early, it can be amenable, says Musab Hemsi

The impact of absences on organisations is significant. Short-term sickness accounts for nearly 80 per cent of all absences and costs the economy billions of pounds annually. Additionally, sick leave means lower business productivity, negative impact on service delivery, client dissatisfaction, low morale and high stress levels. The pandemic is proving to be a zenith for successful absence management. 

While short-term absence can be disruptive, as long as it is treated sensibly and any issues addressed, it should remain manageable. When sickness absence is not properly managed, the risks and disruption are far greater. This will inevitably be challenging for your business, especially if the employee carries out an integral role. 

Taking proactive steps to manage sickness absence helps. Many of the steps are well known to organisations, but not always routinely applied. 

Addressing the matter early will allow you to plan ahead and understand what your obligations are to the employee. If the reason for absence relates to workplace issues, finding this out early will create an opportunity to see if the issue can be resolved. Should you stay in touch with an absent employee? The answer is a definite ‘yes’.

If short-term sickness evolves into longer-term absence, maintaining regular contact will keep you informed of the employee’s progress and whether there are steps which would assist them in returning to work. Maintaining authentic, kind contact will also ensure that lines of communication remain open and can help prevent the employee becoming isolated from the workplace.

Setting out the business’s stall in a sickness absence policy allows you to clearly communicate your expectations to all employees. This policy should be well disseminated and readily accessible to all. 

Return-to-work and welfare meetings are another proven way of reducing sickness absence, in particular with spurious cases. Think about it: an employee who is not genuinely ill is less likely to take sickness absence if they know they will have to face questioning. 

Holding welfare discussions during longer periods of absence and return-to-work discussions on every occasion that an employee returns to work facilitates an understanding of the reason for absence, any illness and prognosis. Remember to strike a balance of how often to keep in touch during longer absences. The employee shouldn’t feel cut off, but equally they should not feel harassed. 

Do not make assumptions about your employee’s circumstances. Listen to what they say, be objective and take it on board. Keep a written record of every meeting and see if there are wider trends to address.

Most people at some point will feel too unwell to attend work. However, for some a pattern of absence will exist which suggests malingering, such as having regular absences on a Friday or Monday. If an employee hits an absence trigger and they do not have a disability, you may issue them a warning in accordance with your procedures, underlining what is expected of them. If the employee continues to ignore warnings, it will not be long before more decisive action. 

Understanding the reasons for long-term absence will allow an informed decision as to whether the employee can return to work at all and if so, when and in what capacity. You may obtain medical evidence from a GP or an occupational health report, provided the business respects the employee’s rights under the Access to Medical Reports Act and data protection law.

An employee who is not passionate about their job or invested in the success of your business is less likely to care about the impact of their absence from work. Managing sick leave well unlocks a host of benefits to the employee and employer alike. 

Musab Hemsi is a partner at LexLeyton