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16 January 2015

How to reduce sickness absence at work

The average British worker takes 4.4 days’ sickness absence every year and last year, minor illnesses such as coughs and colds were the most common reason given for sickness. However more days were lost to back, neck and muscle pain than any other cause.

High levels of sickness absence can lead to reduced production, low staff morale, increased costs and poor customer service.  For small employers in particular, this can be very disruptive.

Kathryn Fielder, employment lawyer at leading Buckinghamshire law firm B P Collins LLP advises what steps you can take to reduce sickness absence within your organisation.

Sickness absence policy

You should have a sickness absence policy in place so that employees understand what is expected of them.  It should set out your arrangements for sick pay and for reporting and managing sickness absence.  It will help managers to deal with sickness absence fairly and consistently.

Monitoring attendance

You should also keep individual attendance records so that you can monitor absence and look for any patterns, such as the employee who regularly takes Mondays off, the employee who is often off-sick on the Friday before a bank holiday weekend or a particularly high level of absence in one department or team, which may indicate an underlying problem.

Measuring absence can show how much time is lost, where it occurs most and how often individual employees are absent, which will help you to address any issues.

Practical steps to reduce short term absence

You should require an employee to phone in by a given time on each day of sickness, such as within one hour of their start time, and to speak to a senior employee.  They should state the reason for their absence and a likely return date.  This can reduce the number of non-genuine absences.

Employees should also be required to complete a sickness self-certificate when they return, giving the dates of their absence, the reason and any medical treatment received.

It has been shown that the most effective way to reduce short-term absence, which is usually defined as less than one week, is to carry out ‘return to work’ interviews when the employee is back at work.  This involves the line manager meeting with the individual on their first day back at work to discuss why they were off sick, whether they have recovered and if there are any underlying health or other issues of which the manager should be aware of.

This procedure often deters employees from taking time off when they are not genuinely ill.  If the manager believes that the absence was not genuine or the employee’s absence has reached unacceptable levels, you should take disciplinary action against them.

Practical steps to reduce long term absence

If the absence lasts for seven days or more, the employee should be asked to call in once a week to update their line manager and to send in one or more fit notes from their GP to cover the whole period of their absence.  The GP will advise if the employee is ‘not fit for work’ or ‘may be fit for work’ and may make suggestions to help the employee return to work, such as a phased return to work, altered hours, amended duties or workplace adaptations.

Where an employee is off sick for some time, you should request a report from their GP or an occupational health specialist.  This will give you more information about the illness, the prognosis, a likely return date and whether you can make any adjustments to their role to enable them to return more quickly.  This has been shown to be very effective in reducing long term absence.  You should stay in touch while they are off sick to make it easier for them to return and you should meet with them before they return to agree the details.

Where an employee has been off sick for some time and is unable to return to work or it cannot be said when they might be fit, you may be able to terminate their employment but you will need to follow the correct procedure, which will include obtaining medical evidence.  In addition, an employee on long term sickness may be classed as disabled under the Equality Act 2010 and benefit from extra protection so you should take legal advice in this situation.

Proposals for reform

A new government funded ‘fit for work’ service is being introduced, in an attempt to reduce the costs of sickness absence to employers and the UK economy.  It will provide occupational health assessments and assist employees who have been absent for four weeks or more to return to work.  It will advise employees and employers.

It was launched on a phased basis in December 2014 and is expected to cover the whole of the UK by the end of May 2015.  If an employee fails to engage with the service, no further fit notes will be issued so the employee will lose their statutory sick pay.


For more information on sickness absence policies or any other employment law issues, please contact a member of the top-ranked employment law team at B P Collins LLP on 01753 279029 or email employmentlaw@bpcollins.co.uk.

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Email: enquiries@bpcollins.co.uk

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