Workplace sickness absence – what can HR do to reduce it?

The average number of days off is rising and employers need solutions. Sarah King reports

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A coalition of charities and experts has called for an overhaul of the UK sick pay system, following the release of figures by the Office for National Statistics that shows a record number of people prevented from working by long-term sickness.

Research conducted by the CIPD also revealed a near-35 per cent increase in sick days taken last year compared with pre-pandemic levels, with UK workers now taking an average of 7.8 days off sick per year.

Employers often look at their own statistics and ways to try to reduce the cost of absence within the business. One way would be through an effective sickness absence policy that would require employees to report absences personally by telephone and not by text or email and must also ensure that return-to-work interviews are conducted by line management after every absence to instigate discussion.

Such conversations could help businesses identify the reasons behind sick days being taken by employees and thus assist both parties in trying to remedy the situation. For example, there could be an underlying medical condition that has not been disclosed relating to a physical or mental health problem, or the employee could be having issues at work and be seeking to avoid dealing with the situation by remaining at home. 

Flexibility is key to any successful policy for those with long-term conditions, as employees should be able to avoid taking a sick day if they can work from home or adjust their hours.

Policies must also be sufficiently adaptable to deal with the varying reasons for long-term sickness absence; the longer someone is off work, the harder it can be for them to return. Additional support is often required, in particular in cases where employees suffer from mental health issues, and thus policies must accommodate differing levels of a phased return to work. 

Employers must be cognisant of complex employment laws if they are to avoid claims. The Equality Act 2010 imposes a duty on organisations to make reasonable adjustments and also prevents other forms of discrimination towards those with disabilities. If an employee is dismissed for repeated sickness absences, but said the absences arose from their disability, the employer may be exposed to a discrimination claim. 

In addition to their Equality Act obligations, all employers have duties to their employees in respect of health and safety matters and the obligations do vary depending on the working environment and other factors. 

Businesses should accommodate employees not being at work if they are signed off unfit to work by a GP. If the employee wishes to return to work early, they should provide a note from their GP to that effect. The requirement for a fit-to-work note is essential, since the absence of such a document may impact an employer’s liability insurance if they permit an employee to work when a doctor has signed them off as unfit.

Second, any decision on a return to work should incorporate any medication that the employee is taking that may impact on their job performance. This would be particularly important if they operate machinery or drive as part of their role. 

Employers often see the biggest impact from repeated short-term absences rather than long-term spells off work. If an employee is off on long-term sick leave, arranging sufficient cover may be possible. However, where employees take off odd days here and there it is often hard to find cover and this can impact on the service the business provides, as well as affect other staff who are used as cover. To avoid such deleterious situations developing, sickness absence policies are most effective when paired with an inclusive and healthy business culture, as this promotes preventative action at early stages and facilitates the required flexibility for employees to manage absences themselves.  

Happy employees generally take less time off work and examining the reasons for absence can give the workplace clues of underlying issues. 

Sarah King is a partner and employment law specialist at Excello Law