Employee Life Cycle: Step 7 Absence Management

  1. Have an absence/attendance management policy in place

All employers should have a policy covering the absence of employees and how to deal with such instances in place, for a number of reasons, including:

  • To have a resource that can be applied in an even handed manner to all employees and promote a consistent and reliable approach to dealing with such matters;
  • Employees who are subject to a disciplinary process for sickness absence often feel that the employer distrusts them or is by implication doubting that the illness is genuine. This will foster an atmosphere in which employee relations will suffer and often be poor;
  • While technically it is an example of poor performance, it differs greatly from other aspects of performance and different questions will be under consideration.
  • An employment tribunal regards using the disciplinary procedure as inappropriate for conduct which is not deliberate misconduct.

As well as the reasons above, it is helpful to have a specific policy for absence/attendance management in place.

For example, it provides a good tool for employers to deal with persistent or repetitive short term absence by way of a system of triggers and cautions/warnings.

In other situations, a policy of this nature can be invaluable in setting out the approach that the organisation will take in dealing with sickness absence (and specific types of sickness absence).

It also points out clearly, what is expected of employees.

It is also possible that an absence issue may trigger the disciplinary process. However, this usually only occurs where disciplinary issues have arisen through the absence, i.e. false sickness or dishonesty. Or an unreasonable refusal of the employee to cooperate with the management of their sickness absence through the policy.

  1. What your policy should include to be effective

A competent policy should cover the following aspects of managing sickness absence:

  • The rules for notifying ones’ employer of absence and supplying evidence of that sickness. If an employee is going to be absent due to illness, who do they call? Where do they call? When do they call?;
  • Outline the rules on sick pay and entitlements. For example, whether the organisation operates Statutory Sick Pay (“SSP”) or contractual sick pay and on what basis;
  • The absence/attendance process, including trigger points and procedures for reviewing patterns of absence;
  • Procedures for managing frequent short term absence where there are underlying medical issues/conditions;
  • Procedures for managing long term absence;
  • Holidays and sickness;
  • Medical report
  1. The absence/attendance management process – triggering a review

There is a need within the policy to set a level or pattern of absence that will trigger a review in relation to an employee’s absence.  There is no ‘yardstick’ or set figure.

A common method of measuring sickness absence is the Bradford Factor. The Bradford Factor is calculated as follows:

 (S x S) X D = B  {\displaystyle B=S^{2}*D}

  • B is the Bradford Factor score
  • S is the total number of spells (instances) of absence of an individual over a set period
  • D is the total number of days of absence of that individual over the same set period

However, an employer can use whatever parameters they wish to do so but your levels or parameters should not be punitive i.e. outside the scope of what ‘a reasonable employer would do’. It should not be so complicated as to cause an excessive amount of time being spent on reviewing cases of absence and practically should be set at a level whereby the people who infringe most are likely to be targeted (the worst 10-15% for example).

Please remember that thresholds or levels can be varied department by department as long as there is a justified reason for doing so, but it is often simpler to have one rule for all.

The procedure should also retain enough resilience and adaptability to guard against those people ‘playing the system’ and should include a term to the effect that an unacceptable pattern of absence will probably trigger a review (e.g. repeated absence around Bank holidays or Mondays and Fridays).

Trigger levels should not be “set in stone”. They should be reviewed and adjusted as the circumstances require.

Do not count unauthorised absence towards your levels. It is a matter of discipline potentially and should be dealt with under the disciplinary procedures.

Do not count pregnancy related absence.

Where there is an underlying medical condition or possible disability it may be that some or all of it may need to be discounted if it is related to the underlying condition.

  1. Return to work interviews

Return to work interviews can be a very effective tool in managing poor attendance and sickness absence. You can use them where there is no policy or even where there is a policy but they are not provided for within the policy.

It should be the aim of the organisation that every episode of absence will merit a conversation with the employee concerned on the day of their return to work or very shortly thereafter.

If done properly and effectively, they can help curb:

  • Absence through a bad attitude (The “I can’t be bothered” person);
  • It gives managers data and a forum to look at and discuss absence and its impact on them, departments and the business as a whole; and
  • It can reveal the reasons for absence and whether there are any underlying health issues that need to be addressed.
  1. Attendance/absence review meetings for repeated absence

With a view to having an effective system whereby an organisation can if the need arises dismiss an employee with unacceptable patterns or levels of absence, you will need to have a series of meetings and issue cautions (if appropriate) which will create record of a lawful nature to show an employment tribunal.

The meetings or hearings often follow this pattern:

  • Informal counselling;
  • Formal attendance hearing;
  • Final attendance hearing; and
  • Dismissal hearing.

The structure and process of these hearings will be akin to a disciplinary or capability procedure with the employee being sent a letter asking them to attend a hearing date, time and place, the nature of the matter to be discussed plus any evidence to be included and giving them the right to be accompanied.

If after the hearing the issuing of a caution is thought to be appropriate, then it should be issued.

  1. Cautions issued for absence

Remember that a caution for absence is not a disciplinary warning as you are not doubting that the absence was not genuine. The caution is to signal to the employee that their level of absence is not in line with company requirements.

Levels of caution:

  • First written caution
  • Final written caution

Remember that if a caution is issued, then there should be a right of appeal included in the written caution and especially where there is a decision to dismiss.

  1. Managing longer term absence and underlying medical conditions

There are several things to remember when dealing with longer term absence. Crucial to this are:

  • Having and obtaining up to date medical evidence;
  • Conversing with the employee about their condition, getting their views and likely prognosis;
  • Establishing what the chances are of the condition clearing up wholly or mainly; and
  • What adjustments will need to be made if the condition falls within the definition of disability.

It should not be a case of “out of sight, out of mind”, and whilst we might consider using a system of cautions for unacceptable levels of absence, it would be generally better to manage the situation in the following manner.

Keep in contact with the employee –  it can be awkward to keep in touch with the long term sick as people often believe that the medical note/GP certificate places the employee beyond the managers reach and that employees might feel harassed. This is not the case. An employer has the right to manage an employee who is off sick and most employees appreciate ongoing contact from the workplace.

Having a clear procedure which the employee is aware of also means that an employee should be less suspicious of ongoing contact. Generally, first contact is by ‘phone but remember that meetings whether at the workplace, the employee’s home or another location agreed by the parties and depending on the employee’s condition. As a rule of thumb you may wish to speak to an employee by phone once a week or more and meet the employee once a month.

Getting the employee back to the workplaceadjustments are important as they can be very useful in getting an employee back to the workplace in some capacity. The sooner an employee can get back in to work, the greater a likelihood of a return to normal duties. Therefore, thinking of what can be done is good for the employee’s health and the employer.

  1. Getting a good medical report
  • First question, do I need to get a report?;
  • How long is the employee likely to be off?; and
  • How long has the employee been off and what’s the prognosis?

The answers to these questions will depend on the facts of each case of sickness absence. As a rough guide if the facts indicate that the employee will be away for 4 to 8 weeks or longer then a medical report may be a consideration.

The next point is if we are going to get a medical report who will provide it?

A report can be provided in a manner of ways;

  • Through the employee’s medical practitioner
  • Through an occupational health provider
  • Through the Government’s Fit for Work scheme
  1. Funding private medical treatment

Think about whether it is worth paying for the employee to receive certain treatment or investigations of their condition or illness. As well as showing support for the employee it can assist in getting a better picture of the condition and its prognosis and assist in a speedier return to work.

Many treatments are less expensive than one thinks and this need to be weighed against the cost of absence and the impact on the workplace. For example, say a scan can be done within 2 weeks privately but is a 6 to10-week wait through the NHS.

  1. Long term absence and dismissing an employee

The main risk in dismissing will be unfair dismissal unless disability is involved.

In order to successfully defend such a claim, you need to show;

  • You have complied with your absence/attendance policy;
  • You have obtained proper medical information which is up to date;
  • You have consulted with the employee and given reasonable warning to the employee that you are considering this course of action;
  • It is necessary to hold a formal hearing before dismissing an employee for sickness absence. This is to ensure that all the relevant facts and information is considered and that a fair and reasonable process has been conducted;
  • Prior to deciding to dismiss, are there any adjustments, redeployment to a different role, ill-health retirement or PHI available as an alternative; and
  • As this is a dismissal, the employee has a right of appeal.

What if the employee is disabled?

If the condition amounts to a disability, then the employee will have protection under the Equality Act 2010.

That definition is;

physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on your ability to carry out normal day- to- day activities.’

It can be difficult to assess what is or is not a disability. Therefore, it is important to gather the best evidence we can to help us in our decision. If in doubt you may wish to err on the side of caution.

A tribunal will expect the employer to have considered all reasonable adjustments not only to enable the employee to return to work but also adjustments where appropriate to any process for dealing with the employee and in considering a dismissal.

Reasonable adjustments are an ongoing process. It is not a matter of just having done it once and that is all. They need to be reviewed and re-assessed as the employee and their condition progresses.

Please remember that dealing with sickness absence is not “one size fits all” scenario. Although there may be similarities between cases, each should be looked at on its own merits. If you are dealing with a situation and are unsure on the best way to handle it please get in touch.

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