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Managing Staff Sickness: A Comprehensive Guide for Employers

Updated: Feb 1

A lady is sat at her desk, blowing her nose.  She is sick at work.

Staff taking time off work because they are ill is an inevitable part of running a business but managing staff sickness effectively is crucial for the overall success of your organisation.

In this blog post, we'll explore the importance of managing staff sickness, the benefits of return-to-work interviews, and strategies for handling both short-term and long-term absences. We'll also delve into the role of occupational health, fit notes, and structuring your company sick pay policy.

The Importance of Managing Staff Absence

Managing staff sickness is an important part of any successful business. It ensures that when people need to take time away from work, such time is managed properly and recorded accurately. Having a system in place to manage staff absence helps keep track of who is working and when, reducing the risk of staffing issues arising due to staff being unnecessarily absent.

Being able to accurately track and manage staff absence also helps influence long-term business decisions. Businesses can rely on accurate absence data to calculate how much the company is spending on employee absences and use this data to plan for future staffing changes, such as hiring new employees or reallocating staff responsibilities.

Managing staff absence can also help create a positive working environment. When everyone is aware of their leave dates and staff absences are properly managed, there is less chaos around when someone will be absent. This allows other workers to take extra shifts, plan, and develop better relationships with colleagues.

Having a system in place to manage staff absences is an important part of running a successful business. It helps keep accurate records, influence long-term decisions, and create a positive working environment.

Managing sickness is not a legal requirement. However, an effective absence management framework will support the health needs of your people. Whilst providing clear and consistent guidance to avoid unauthorised absence or inappropriate use of sick pay schemes.

Staff may need time off for a variety of reasons, from short-term sickness to longer-term health issues.

Fit Notes

As an employer, you may receive a fit note from an employee after they have been absence for 7 days, regarding an inability to work, due to an ill health or injury. government guidance states ‘healthcare professionals cannot issue fit notes during the first 7 calendar days of sickness absence’

A fit note, also known as a ‘Statement of Fitness for Work’, is an important document as it is used to explain to you why an employee may need a period of absence from work, or why they may need to work part-time or be given different duties.

From last year the Department for Work and Pensions updated the law regarding fit notes. They now can be issued by other healthcare professionals, such as nurses, occupational therapists, pharmacists and physiotherapists in addition to a Doctor.

You may have noticed changes to fit notes, as healthcare professionals no longer need to sign the form in ink. Instead the requirement is for the issuer to include their name and profession.

Government guidance for employers, explains the

5 things to do if you are given a fit note:

  1. 'Check whether your employee’s healthcare professional has assessed that they are not fit for work or may be fit for work.

  2. Check how long your employee’s fit note applies for, and whether they are expected to be fit for work when their fit note expires.

  3. If your employee may be fit for work, discuss their fit note with them and see if you can agree any changes to help them come back to work while it lasts.

  4. If your employee is not fit for work, or if they may be fit for work but you can’t agree any changes, use the fit note as evidence for your sick pay procedures.

  5. Consider taking a copy of the fit note for your records (your employee should keep the original).’

To read more about the government fit note guidance for employers and line managers, click here.

Statutory and Company Sick Pay

When an employee is off work due to illness, Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is paid instead of an employee's salary. SSP starts on the fourth day an employee is off work (the first three days are unpaid) and can be paid for up to 28 weeks. After 7 days of absence the employer is entitled to demand a 'fit note' signed by a doctor. If an employee is entitled to SSP, it will be taxed and National Insurance contributions will be deducted. The amount of SSP is set by the government.

Employers may also decide to pay Company Sick, in addition to SSP.

If you're an employer looking to set up a sick pay policy for your company, to enable staff to receive more than SSP. There are several factors you should consider. The primary goal is to create a fair and equitable system that doesn't leave your people in the lurch. Here are a few tips to get you started.

First, decide how much employees are eligible to receive. Many employers offer a percentage of the employee's salary, dependent on the length of service. For example, after successful completion of probationary period, the employee can receive 50%, 75% or 100% of their salary whilst off work due to sickness.

Second, decide how long the sick pay lasts. For example, if an employee is unable to work due to an illness, the employer may provide sick pay for up to 1, 3 or 6 months.

Lastly, ensure that any sick pay policy follows relevant employment legislation. Consider consulting with a HR expert or legal advice to make sure your policy abides by employment law, protects the business and is fit for purpose.

By following these guidelines, you can craft a fair and equitable sick pay policy for your company. Your employees will certainly appreciate the effort in creating a system that considers their wellbeing and their job security.

Managing Short Term Sickness

According to an article in People management, short-term sickness accounts for nearly 80 per cent of all absences. And there are many interventions that can be implemented to manage short term absence, such as:

  • Return-to-work interviews

  • Providing leave for family circumstances

  • Use of trigger mechanisms to review attendance

  • Disciplinary procedures for unacceptable absence levels

  • changes to working patterns or environment, e.g. flexible working

  • Employee assistance programme

  • Training line managers in how to mange staff absence

  • Involving occupational health professionals

One of the most effective ways to manage short term sickness in the workplace is a return-to-work interview/meeting. However, to be effective they must be carried out appropriately and consistently.

Return-to-Work Interviews/Meetings:

As CIPD 2023 explain, ‘Return to work interviews are an important part of managing absence – they allow you to establish from the employee the nature of their absence, whether there are any underlying causes and, what help and support they might need from you.

It is important that you keep the purpose of the interview focused on support and any potential adjustments to help the employee back to work, and ensure that it is not used as an opportunity for a discussion around performance or disciplinary issues.’

How to carry out a return-to-work interview/meeting

  • Conducting the interview as early as possible in the employee's work day will alleviate any concerns that the employee has about their return to work, and help them to focus on getting back into their work.’

  • Before carrying out a return to work interview, think about the tone and structure of the meeting, together with having the correct company paperwork to complete, such as a return to work meeting form, medical certificate if they have one and employee self-certification form.

  • Always start the return to work meeting by welcoming your team member back to work and genuinely ask how they are, as this will help to build trust and a two-way honest conversation.

  • A return to work meeting form, should provide the prompts on what to ask about their illness to establish the medical reason for their absence. Actively listening is crucial to understanding the route course of their absence and if they have fully recovered.

  • A return-to-work meeting should not be viewed as a ‘tick box’ exercise. The purpose of the meeting is a supportive process to establish if the person is well enough to return to work and if any reasonable adjustment need to be considered. Whilst providing a clear and consistent approach to avoid unauthorised absence and inappropriate use of sick pay. The employee may share information that is sensitive or information that you may find upsetting. It’s important to show compassion and support, but it is not your job to ‘fix the problem’. You may also find the other extreme where someone does not want to share personal information. Their right to privacy needs to be respected. However, reiterate and explain the purpose of the meeting, together with the duty of care you have as their employer, including maintaining a safe and healthy working environment.

  • When managing short term and long-term absence it often gets forgotten that the employers role is to support staff to be able to come back to work to carry out the role they are employed to do. Therefore, during the meeting you may need to remind someone that it is their responsibility to attend work regularly if they are well enough. The meeting can also be used as an opportunity to check that they have followed the correct way to report their absence following the company’s absence management policy, and if it is a concern go through the employee’s sickness record. However, don’t turn the return-to-work meeting into a disciplinary or performance meeting.

  • The meeting can also be a good time to discuss any changes in the organisation and an opportunity to catch up with what the employee missed out on and needs to be to be aware of upon their return to work.

  • The meeting should end in a supportive and positive manner. Remember to complete all the required paperwork and notes, so that if the employee is off sick again, the meeting notes can be referred back to and any agreed actions. These may be needed as evidence if a disciplinary was to take place, therefore it is important that all notes are clear, concise and factual. And lastly, ensure you have followed your company policy for managing absence.

  • Finally, return to work interviews are a great way for employers to show their commitment to the employee’s health, safety and well-being and ensure that their return to work is a positive experience. Doing so can help to create a culture of understanding and mutual respect between the employer and employee and ultimately are key to ensuring high levels of staff retention.

Managing Long-Term Sickness

For longer absences, employers may consider offering flexible working arrangements or working with an occupational health provider to ensure that the employee is fit to return to work. An employee is typically considered to be on long-term sick leave or absence after being off work for four consecutive weeks or more.

Employers should take an active role in managing long-term absences, and have a robust policy in place. That clearly explains to staff, how their absence will be managed long term and explains to managers, what to do when managing a member of the team who is off work for a long period of time.

Maintaining appropriate, regular communication with the employee is essential, and this may differ for each individual. It is important to get the balance right, so that people do not feel abandoned whilst off work long term, but also do not feel hounded with constant communication. Welfare meetings and seeking advice from occupational health professionals are also ways to manage long term absence and support staff.

Additionally, adjustments or accommodations may be necessary to facilitate the employee's return to work, such as phased returns or modified duties. Employers should consider conducting return-to-work interviews to ensure that the employee is supported and to identify any adjustments that may be necessary.

Ultimately, employers should ensure that all relevant policies and procedures are followed, and that the employee is supported as they transition back to work.

Occupational health can also play an important role in managing long-term illness in the workplace. It is essential that an individual’s illness is managed in a way that ensures they can make a successful return to work. Occupational health specialists are well placed to provide advice and support to employers to help them navigate the complexities of implementing best practise and making sure employees have access to the right support.

The role of occupational health in managing long-term illness in the workplace includes providing advice on return-to-work plans and helping to develop suitable adjustments in the workplace. In the case of disability or chronic illness, occupational health specialists can provide advice on reasonable adjustments in the workplace that could be made to ensure the employee is able to remain in their job.

Finally, occupational health professionals may also provide advice to employers on maintaining a healthy and safe working environment. This may involve providing guidance on the best practises for managing long-term absences, and making sure that sufficient support is provided to employees who are managing chronic illnesses or other health conditions in the workplace.

Overall, occupational health plays a key role in managing long-term absence in the workplace. The Government are also launching project funding in May to boost occupational health access for SME employees, to find out more click here.

Occupational health professionals can provide employers with advice and practical guidance on how to provide suitable support to employees who are facing long-term illness. This helps to ensure that they can make a successful return to work and maintain a safe and healthy workplace.

Minimise the Impact of Staff Absence

Managing employee absences is a crucial aspect of maintaining a healthy and productive work environment. By addressing the causes of absences, supporting employees through return-to-work processes, and implementing effective policies, employers can minimise the impact of absences on their organisation and foster a supportive culture that values employee well-being.

For HR resources that will help support your people, whilst protecting the organisation, take a look at our resource page:

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