Types of absenteeism and how to deal with them

There are three separate strands to absenteeism:

• authorised and planned for, such as holiday, maternity or paternity leave (see article 61)

• unplanned but genuine absence, such as sickness

• unauthorised or suspect absence, which can also include lateness.

The latest research from the CIPD and Simply Health, published in October 2014, reveals that the number of days the average UK worker takes off sick each year has fallen to 6.6 days from 7.6 days. Public sector absenteeism stands at 7.9 days per employee per year, while in the private services sector it stands at 5.5 days per employee per year. Regardless of sector, absence levels tend to increase with the size of organisation. The average cost of absence per employee per year has risen to £606, slightly above the previous year’s figure of £595.

More than half the organisations surveyed by the CIPD had made some change to their approach to absence management during the previous year. The most common change (61%) was to develop line manager capability in dealing with absence management. Other changes included changing or reinforcing absence management policies, and revising monitoring procedures. There has been an increased focus on attendance strategies (42%, compared to 21% in 2013), although very few organisations have introduced an attendance incentive scheme.

The most common way of dealing with both short and long-term absence remains the return-to-work interview. For short-term absence the next most common ways of managing absence are trigger mechanisms to review attendance and leave for family circumstances. For long-term absence the second and third most common ways of managing absence are the involvement of occupational health and return-to-work risk assessments. For the first time, researchers asked employers what support they offered to employees with acute conditions (e.g. stroke, heart attack and cancer); 97% reported they used one or more approach to support these employees, including changes to working patterns or the working environment, flexible working, return-to-work interviews and occupational health involvement.

In three-fifths of organisations line managers have the primary responsibility for managing short-term absence and they take responsibility for managing long-term absence in 46% of organisations. Around 70% of surveyed organisations believe it is possible to reduce absence levels and half of those who believe it is possible to reduce absence levels have a target in place to do so.

Minor illnesses remain the top short-term cause of absence, with stress and musculoskeletal injuries taking joint second place, and back pain in third place. Acute conditions are the most common cause of long-term absence. The public and non-profit sectors were more likely to report stress and mental ill-health as a cause of long-term absence than the private sector. As in previous years the most common cause of stress is workload, which was cited by 56% of respondents, up from 46% in 2013. Non-work factors, such as relationships and family issues were cited by 36% of respondents while management style as a causation of stress was in third place at 34%, down from 39% in 2013. There has been a significant drop in considerable organisation change/ restructuring as a cause of stress, being cited by 20%, down from 32%.

Persistent genuine absence

In the case of persistent unplanned but genuine absence, a meeting should be held with the employee to discover the reason behind the absences. For example, an employee may have personal problems, such as caring responsibilities, which can be overcome by forms of flexible working such as split shifts or working from home. It is important to remember that the employee might be reluctant to divulge problems for fear it will affect the employer’s attitude towards them so it should always be stated that the intention behind these meetings is to help.

Long-term absence

In cases of long-term absence, initiating disciplinary proceedings and even dismissal may be fair – but only after other options have been exhausted. It is also important to remember that if an employer has potentially contributed to illness, then the organisation may be liable (see article 136 onwards). After a lengthy absence it may be necessary to adopt a reintroduction policy such as a phased return to ease the employee back into the workplace. It is also important to note that the Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for an employer to treat a person less favourably because of a reason relating to their disability (which may include illness), without a justifiable reason (see article 62 onwards).

Fit note

In April 2010, for people who are on sick leave for more than seven days, the ‘sick note’ was replaced by the ‘fit note’. As with the sick note, The Statement of Fitness to Work (to give the ‘fit note’ its proper title) is given by GPs to patients. The fit note may say that an employee is unfit for work but it could also say that an employee is fit for work if certain steps are taken by the employer to support the employee. This might mean discussing:

• a phased return to work altered hours

• amended duties 

• workplace adaptations.

The fit note can also provide general details of the functional effect of the individual’s condition. For example, under the sick note scheme an employee with an injury might be slow to return to work because he or she feared aggravating it. Under the fit note an adaptation which could override the fear might be suggested, e.g. a parking space near the office to reduce walking.

Fit for Work Service

The Department for Work and Pensions is in the process of introducing a new Fit for Work Service (formerly Health and Work Service), which will give employers independent, bespoke advice and aims to get people who have been off work for more than four weeks back to work and prevent them from falling out of work and onto long-term sickness benefits.

The Fit for Work Service provides occupational health advice and support for employees, employers and GPs to help people with a health condition to stay in or return to work. It is designed to work alongside, not replace, existing occupational health services.

There are two elements to the service:

assessment – once the employee has reached, or is expected to reach, four weeks of sickness absence they will normally be referred by their GP for an assessment by an occupational health professional, who will look at all the issues preventing the employee from returning to work

advice – employers, employees and GPs will be able to access advice through a phone line and website.

At the time of writing the website and telephone helpline had gone live and the GP referral scheme had begun to be rolled out, with national coverage expected by autumn 2015, when employers can start to refer too. More information is available at: http://fitforwork.org/

Following their assessment, employees will receive a return to work plan with recommendations to help them to return to work more quickly and information on how to get appropriate help and advice. The employee will need to consent to be referred to the Fit for Work Service and to have their return to work plan shared with their GP and their employer.

Holidays and sick leave

The law around holidays and sick leave continues to be very technical so seeking legal advice is recommended. In summary: workers who are on long-term sick leave are entitled to take four weeks’ paid statutory holiday leave while on sick leave. If being sick prevents them from taking their holiday, then they are entitled to carry it across to the next holiday year. If falling sick prevents a worker from taking annual leave then they must be allowed to take that leave later – again, that can be in a new holiday year. The European Court of Justice has also said that when a worker falls sick during their holiday, they are entitled to that period of leave at a later time.

The Court of Appeal has said that a request from someone who has been on long-term sick leave to carry over holiday leave to the next year must be made if there is an opportunity for the employee to do so. Therefore, someone who has been continually absent for more than a year must have their holiday leave rolled over automatically because they do not have the opportunity to make the request. However, someone who has returned to work, even in a reduced capacity would have the opportunity to make the request and, therefore, should do so.

Suspect absences

You should include details about how you discipline suspect absence in your disciplinary policy. It is important to make sure you have supporting evidence, such as proof of the employee engaging in an activity they are supposedly too ill to accomplish. You might also monitor the absences to see if any trends emerge, e.g. Mondays, Fridays or sunny days. In the latter case, you should try to solve the problem proactively, for example take advantage of the good weather by holding a team meeting in a local park or provide outdoor furniture as an alternative to meeting over the water cooler.

Persistent lateness may be tackled by flexible working provisions, such as allowing the employee to start and finish earlier or later. If you introduce flexible working it is important to ensure that line managers are signed up to these provisions and are comfortable working with them, otherwise you can find yourself with a clash between the organisation’s provisions and line managers’ demands.