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As we approach the winter season, managing sickness absence at work becomes a more important task for employers. The cold weather can often bring with it a rise in illnesses, leading to increased employee absences. We look at practical and legal advice as a reminder on how to effectively manage sickness leave to support staff while maintaining productivity for the business. 

1. Implement a clear Sickness Absence Policy

A good Sickness Absence Policy should be accessible to all employees and outline the reporting procedures in place and explain how absences are managed. The policy should explain: 

  1. Absence procedure and notification requirements: who an employee should notify to report their absence, method of communication and the time you expect them to have notified you. 
  2. Evidence of incapacity: an employee can self-certify sickness up to 7 calendar days. However, they will need to procure a Statement of Fitness to Work (fit notes) if absent for more than one week. 
  3. Sick pay provisions: any contractual pay terms the organisation may offer and statutory sick pay provisions. Holiday is still accrued during sickness periods so employees may wish to use this to cover additional needed sick leave on full pay. 
  4. Medical Records: consider including in your policy the right for employers to access medical records and for the employee to agree to a medical consultation with occupational health (with express consent of the employee). This is to better understand the medical condition. 
  5. Explain how return to work meetings will be conducted. 
  6. Explain that the employer will make reasonable adjustments for employees with a disability. 
  7. Dismissal procedure on the grounds of frequent/long-term absence under a disciplinary or capability process. Including an employee’s right to appeal.  

2. Encourage an open communication within the workplace

A culture of open communication can help employees feel more comfortable discussing their health. This includes mental health as well as physical health. Regular check ins and an open-door policy can facilitate these conversations. 

Line managers are normally the first point of contact when handling employee absences so providing training to managers can give them the confidence to appropriately handle situations and enable them to be managed consistently across the business. 

3. Monitoring

Record and monitor the date and reason for each employee’s absence to help identify trends and manage risk. This can help early identification of potential issues and allow for timely intervention. 

It is helpful to include ‘trigger points’ to communicate the level of absence which will be picked up by the employer. This should be tailored to your organisation and culture and consider adjustments for disability related absences.

Health data is categorised as ‘sensitive information’ under the UK GDPR therefore recording or sharing such data should be in accordance with data privacy rules and set out in the employee privacy notice. 

4. Workplace adjustments

What constitutes as a disability under the Equality Act 2010 is a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term effect’ on an individual’s ability to do normal daily activities. If an employee’s sickness absence is due to a disability, employers are required to make reasonable adjustments. 

The duty kicks in when an employer knows or ought to have known that the individual has a disability. If an employee is off for short successive absences, then this could be due to a disability, so it is important to encourage employees to be open about any medical condition. 

Identifying an employee’s needs at an early stage allows you to manage expectations and implement any reasonable adjustments that may be required. 

What is a reasonable adjustment is fact sensitive and depends on the organisation’s resources as well as the individual concerned. However, adjustments could include flexible working hours, phased return to work, amended duties, changes to the physical workspace or other workplace adaptions such as assistive technology. 

It’s important to have a discussion with the employee about what adjustments would be most helpful for them and that this is supported by a GP or occupational health. 

However, an employer is not obligated to implement all suggestions put forward by the employee but to discuss and put in place reasonable adjustments.

5. Maintain appropriate contact

There is no rule that says an employer cannot contact an employee during a period of sick leave. In fact, employers are under a statutory duty to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of its employees, so far as is reasonably practicable, including where an employee is absent from work due to illness or injury.

Employers and employees should agree on how to stay in touch during absence and how much contact is reasonable. The amount of contact during the absence period should be ‘appropriate’ and determined on a case-by-case basis. Factors such as the employee’s role, size and culture of the business, sickness absence policy, and reason for the absence should all be considered when deciding what is ‘appropriate’.

6. Assisting with Return to Work in cases of longer term absences

When an employee is ready to return to work after a prolonged period of absence, it’s important for employers to have a process in place. This process should be outlined in the employer’s absence policy. 

A return-to-work meeting is often just an informal chat between an employee and their line manager. These meetings provide a good opportunity to make sure the employee is ready to return to work, discuss any work updates that happened while they were off, see if they need any support, and agree on a plan for returning to work. 

If the employee has been off sick, their employer might also look at any recommendations from the employee’s doctor. If the employee is disabled, their employer should discuss whether there are any reasonable adjustments they can make to support the return to work. 

The government also offers a scheme called Access to Work which can help people with a physical or mental health condition or disability get or stay in work. Someone may be eligible for a grant to help pay for practical support.

Maintaining contact with absent employees and assisting with their return to work are an effective way of maintaining a good relationship. 

Employers need to strike a balance between showing concern and support while ensuring that no pressure is placed on employees during their absence or upon their return. Any pressure to return to work or excessive and intrusive communication could lead the organisation vulnerable to claims of harassment.

It is important that there is not a “one case fits all” approach with regards to absences and therefore employer’s need to be aware of the individual circumstances before making decisions when managing sickness absence.

If you or your business require advice on sickness absence, please contact our solicitors today by completing the enquiry form below.

Key Contact

Debbie Coyne

Debbie Coyne

Employment Law Senior Associate Solicitor

Debbie is a Senior Associate in the Employment team who regularly attends our offices in Altrincham, Warrington and Chester.  She is recommended in The Legal 500 and has been named as a Rising Star.

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