How businesses can best manage employee absences

Hina Belitz highlights the importance of an absence policy and offers advice for employers on promoting staff wellbeing

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Absence from work is an issue all employers face. The average employee absence per year is 6.9 days, according to the CIPD Absence Management Survey. Minor illnesses, ranging from flu to headaches, are the most common causes for absence and the median cost is £554 per employee. 

Aside from the discomfort suffered by the employee, workplace absence can cause disruption and significant financial loss to the employer. With workloads also often needing to be covered by other employees, absence can hinder productivity and increase stress levels.  

A policy is key. The benefits of this include increased retention, productivity and identification of patterns in staff absences, which can then be mitigated in the future. Policies also ensures consistency across the company, which prevents allegations of unfair practice or discrimination. 

What an absence policy should cover

All employers should have a clear policy covering the steps that an employee and employer will take in the case of illness. An absence policy should incorporate many things including instructions on how absences are authorised, who the employee should contact and when, number of days paid for sick leave, communication system and much more. Online management software to track the number and frequencies of absences is becoming increasingly popular to assist with this.

Return-to-work interviews have been proven to reduce absence levels as they offer a chance for employees to highlight their needs. They also uphold a culture of attendance by actively addressing any absences. 

UK legal position

Employers should be aware of the law relating to managing absence. Perhaps the biggest risk arises from a possible discrimination claim. More often than I could mention, employers miss a possible disability discrimination claim in part due to the sheer number and variety of illnesses and ailments there are, but also because they are not always mindful of what to look out for.

Disability discrimination

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers are obliged to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to support employees who have a disability as defined. There are a number of conditions that automatically qualify for protection while others must satisfy the definition. Disability includes ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ conditions which may not be self-evident to the employer, such as depression, menopause or post-traumatic stress disorder. Examples of reasonable adjustments include anything from regular breaks to providing assistive equipment for the employee. 

Data protection

Employers need to be careful when storing information regarding their employee’s health to avoid breaching data protection rules as it is categorised as ‘sensitive personal data’. 

Sick pay 

While there is no general common law right to receive pay during illness, employers must, under s 1 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, inform employees of any sick pay provision. Contractual sick pay clauses vary significantly across industries, while some employers offer only statutory sick pay. 

Policies to prevent illness 

While absence management policies are important, the ideal scenario for both employees and employers is low levels of illness. Absence management is therefore best assisted by active policies to promote wellbeing and wellness. 

Some examples of actions that employers can take include: 

  • allowing for flexible working hours; 

  • introducing wellbeing programmes, for instance exercise class vouchers;

  • creating an inviting office space, with good lighting and greenery; 

  • promoting collaborative, support team environments;

  • monitoring illness before it becomes detrimental to working.

Through active management of absence and robust absence management policies, employers are better able to respond to the pressures and disruptions caused by workplace absence. 

Hina Belitz is a partner and specialist employment lawyer at Excello Law