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Sickness absence – busting myths!

The management of sickness absence is an inevitable aspect of the management of employees. Whether the number of lost days is very high or very low, there is always scope for improvement.

In the 20 years between 1993 and 2013 there was, across the UK, a downward trend in the number of days lost due to absence.

The most significant decline in days lost was between 2003 and 2011 and the number of days lost are now largely stable.

The most significant causes of absence are back and neck problems and stress, depression and anxiety. The average number of days lost per person in 2013 was 4.4 days. Proportionately, there were more days lost in the North East than any other UK region.

Tools of the trade

Although the management of sickness absence is a key aspect of managing employees, that does not make it any easier. There often appears to be real discomfort on the part of management as to whether to be supportive or whether to be firm in management style.

There isn’t an easy answer. But whether you are seeking to be supportive of the employee or you are frustrated by what you consider to be excessive absence, the key feature is that you need as much information as soon as possible as to the nature of the ill health. This information will shape how to manage the absence and the gathering of the information may have a beneficial side-effect of prompting an early return to work.

In order to gather the evidence about the extent and the nature of the ill health, there are many tools and you can use them as you see fit. The tools can be used whether or not the employee is covered by a fit note.

As a rule, you should:

  • Insist that the employee does not use text or a friend/family member to inform the business as to the absence.
  • Insist that the employee upon the renewal of any sick note or on a weekly basis contacts the business to explain the ongoing ill health and the prognosis.
  • Ensure that a thorough return to work interview process is utilised.
  • Hold regular home visits. This may extend to engaging a nurse to conduct the home visits to support the employee if they are unwell or prompt a return to work if they are not ‘so’ unwell.
  • Hold regular update meetings at the workplace.
  • Insist that the employee performs ‘light work’ once they are able to do so.
  • Acquire detailed medical reports once the medical condition has stabilized and lasted more than one month.

If you are suspicious about the absence, you may consider making an unplanned home visit or having the employee monitored using the services of an inquiry agent. If you discover that the employee is not in fact ill then dismissal is likely to be fair.

Considering dismissal

Whether the employee absence is long term or frustratingly persistent, ultimately dismissal is possible. However, the process for dealing with long-term and persistent absence is fundamentally different.

Long-term absence is managed by seeking to support, but ultimately dismissing if the employee is unlikely to return to work.

Persistent absence is typically managed by warnings and then dismissal. But the two approaches should not be confused – to warn, as quite often happens, an employee on long term sickness that they will be further disciplined if they do not return to work confuses two processes and will lead to difficulties.

Disability is inevitably a complication and it raises the risk profile of what action you may plan to take. But it does not stop you acting. With long term sickness, disability means that you need to consider adjustments to an employee’s role and how the role may be performed. But if an employee cannot perform the role despite viable changes then dismissal is an option.

With persistent absence, you are able to manage disabled employees in a very similar fashion to all other employees. You are able to follow through a warning process and apply absence triggers as you would for the whole of your workforce. Indeed, in a recent case – Griffiths –v- Secretary of State for Work and Pensions – the Employment Appeal Tribunal suggested a disabled absent employee can be treated in precisely the same manner as a non-disabled employee absent for the same length of time.

This is a surprising decision, but it is common to extend slightly any absence triggers for a disabled employee but move to dismiss if those absence triggers are then not satisfied.


Whether a business pays statutory sick pay or pays an enhanced sickness benefit, sickness absence is a fact of life. However, sickness absence issues are considerably more difficult to manage when an employee enjoys protracted periods of full pay.

Consequently, a business that offers enhanced sickness pay needs to ensure that it manages sickness absence closely.

Removing existing enhanced sick pay arrangements may not be possible or desirable for the culture of your business. But it may be worth considering whether continued receipt of sickness pay should be conditional upon the employee meeting a range of expectations.

Examples might be that in order to receive sick pay, an employee must not be responding to an invitation to a disciplinary meeting, must have a clean disciplinary record, must have achieved all targets and expectations, must be prepared to perform light work which is available, etc.


Successfully managing sickness absence can be crucial to the effective management of your workforce and, ultimately, the success of your business or organisation so it is something which needs to be taken seriously and is an area where clarity and consistency is vital.

How can I find out more?

For more information on sickness absence or any aspect of employment law, please do not hesitate to get in touch with myself or a member of the Employment Team.