Managing sickness absence is one of those issues that managers really dislike. Typically the desire to be supportive can mean that commercial sense takes second place. But that in itself is not the answer. So if you are asking yourself, how do I manage sickness absence fairly and consistently, read on!
What are the issues with managing sickness absence?
The main issue that managers have when addressing sickness absence is the feeling that they are punishing someone for being ill. After all, the employee can’t help being ill can they? Well, that depends on the reasons for the sickness absence. It is good practice to complete a return to work interview after each absence. This helps the manager to understand if there are any underlying reasons for the sickness absence and also shows the employee that the organisation cares and is genuinely interested in them.
Return to work interview
For this reason, the Return to Work interview shouldn’t be a psuedo-disciplinary meeting, but should be a light touch base meeting that gives the employee the opportunity to raise any concerns. It is also, however, a good opportunity to ensure that the employee knows that their work is valuable and that their absence is felt by their team and the wider organisation. This isn’t intended to blackmail employees to come to work when they are genuinely ill but it is a reminder that no role is a luxury role and that others have to work harder to keep all the plates spinning. Therefore, it is important that persistent absence is addressed so that other team members don’t get stressed by having to constantly pick up extra work.
Consistency when managing sickness absence
One area organisations struggle with when managing sickness absence is with consistency. How do you ensure that you treat one employee the same as another? Since the 1980’s, one of the main methods of ensuring consistency has been the Bradford Factor. This method differentiates between short term absence (which is typically disruptive) and long term absence (which can be covered). You can download a heatmap at the end of this document that shows where the areas of concern are.
Taking action to manage sickness absence
When managing short term sickness absence issues, it is important to recognise that sometimes there is a need to take formal action. This typically follows the same pattern as a disciplinary hearing. Firstly, the investigation looks at their absence history and reasons for that absence. Secondly, you arrange a meeting to express the concern you have and the impact it’s having on the rest of the team. If you have a separate sickness absence procedure you may then issue a first improvement notice. If you don’t, it will be a first written warning with expected improvements clearly noted in the letter. In either case, the right to appeal should be offered. This process will then continue for as many steps as your policy allows (typically 3). At the end, if no improvement has been shown or maintained, then dismissal with notice is an option.
Returning to work after long term sickness absence
When your colleague is ready to return to work after a period of long term absence, they may need additional support. Consulting a GP or Occupational Health can help here. Asking for a report that details whether the employee is capable of performing their role is helpful. However, GP’s often don’t reply with the information you need. It may be a good idea to consider a phased return to work where the employee has been off for over a month. If you are unclear how to arrange a phased return, get in touch today!
What if there is no chance of return?
If, after you’ve gathered all the relevant evidence, the employee is never going to be able to perform their role, you will need to look at all the alternatives. As part of that review, you’d look at whether there are alternative roles in the organisation that they may be able to perform. If that is the case, a trial period in the role may be a good outcome. Where there aren’t suitable roles, you may need to consider dismissal on the grounds of ill health. This decision should only be taken when you are in full possession of the facts.
Issues related to Disability
Extra caution should be applied where an employee is classed as disabled as defined under the Equality Act 2010. The obligations to make reasonable adjustments could lead to you needing to relax any triggers that you have in your sickness absence policy. However, it does not prevent you from managing absence. It is recommended that you get specialist advice before tackling issues of this nature.
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