Employment and HR

Dealing with Employee Absence

Employee absences can be both costly and disruptive for businesses. It is therefore advisable to identify the reason why people are off work and to manage their absence in a sensitive way. If their working conditions have contributed to their illness, remedial action should be taken where possible.

The Chartered, Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) has published its eighteenth annual survey, 'The Health and Well-Being at Work Report', which was carried out in in November 2017 in partnership with Simplyhealth. Whilst the survey continues to monitor absence management trends, policy and practice, as in past years, this year the focus has shifted from absence management to health and well-being at work.

The 2017 survey found that organisations that have in place a standalone well-being strategy, with senior managers and line managers who recognise the importance of and promote the well-being of workers, are more likely to report positive outcomes with regard to employee sickness absence.

The average level of employee absence has increased slightly to 6.6 days per employee, compared with 6.3 days in the 2016 survey. Once again, the survey found that average levels of absence remain higher in the public sector (8.5 days per employee) and in larger organisations.

The most common cause of short-term absence for the vast majority of organisations is minor illness, while mental ill health, musculoskeletal injuries (including back pain), stress and acute medical conditions are the most common causes of long-term absence, as in previous years. However, more organisations include mental ill health among their most common causes of short- and long-term absence and more respondents this year report an increase in common mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. One in five of those who responded report that mental ill health is the number one cause of long-term absence in their organisation, while nearly three-fifths report that it is among their top three causes of long-term absence.

Another finding is that the vast majority of respondents (86 per cent) report that they have observed 'presenteeism' (i.e. people continuing to work when they are unwell) over the past 12 months, with over a quarter of these reporting that presenteeism has increased over this period.

Nearly two-fifths (37 per cent) of respondents report that stress-related absence has increased over the past year and just 8 per cent report that it has decreased. Workload remains by far the most common cause of stress at work, with just over two-thirds of organisations claiming to be taking steps to identify and reduce workplace stress – a small increase on previous years.

While only a minority of organisations (6 per cent) have a standalone mental health policy, there have been small increases this year in the proportion reporting that mental health is part of another policy or that they are developing a policy, and most organisations are taking some action to manage employee mental health at work.

What Can Employers Do to Promote Employees' Health and Wellbeing?

Clearly, awareness of mental health issues and supporting workers who are experiencing problems is vital to promoting employees' health and wellbeing. Having policies in place that acknowledge these issues that are well understood can help in this regard. Creating a friendly working environment, where staff feel valued as part of a team and where flexible, ‘family friendly’ policies are in force is likely to pay dividends, keeping absenteeism to a minimum.

If you do not have a well-being strategy, we can assist you in designing one that focuses on the demands of your workplace. Employers have a duty to protect workers from stress by carrying out appropriate risk assessments and acting on them. These should focus on the areas of work that have the greatest impact on stress levels – i.e. demands, control, support, relationships, role and change.

Managing Sickness Absence

When staff are off sick, their absence should be managed effectively. Make sure they are well informed as to your sickness policy and procedures and that these are seen to be followed and accurate records are kept. These must be retained for at least three years after the appropriate financial year-end.

Where line managers are primarily responsible for overseeing employee absence, make sure they are trained in all aspects of absence-handling and have ongoing support, such as online support or a care conference with the Human Resources department, so that they are able to handle what can be difficult conversations with staff in a sensitive manner.

When hiring new staff, make sure you check their attendance record with the previous employer. If new staff are absent it is good practice to make sure you know if there are problems preventing them from settling in. How staff are treated in the first weeks of a new job is vital. Inadequate training can leave them feeling disillusioned.

It is sensible for employers to ensure that contracts of employment allow them the right to get an independent medical assessment in the event of an employee taking more than a few days off work. You may consider requiring all potential employees to undergo a medical examination with an occupational health adviser.

As a matter of company policy always carry out a ‘return to work’ interview. This may range from ‘hope you’re better, we missed your contribution’, to an identification of underlying problems that will affect your management strategy. It may also deter malingerers.

Long-term sickness must be handled sensitively. You must have an employee’s permission to apply for a medical report. It is vital to keep in touch so that the employee doesn’t feel isolated. Consider referring them to an occupational health specialist. This can identify ways of helping them return to work and give you information as to how long the absence is likely to last.

Disciplinary action for unacceptable absence must be distinguished from dismissal on health grounds. Employers need to be aware of the full range of conditions that count as a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, which include mental health problems that have a substantial, adverse and long term effect on a person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, the effect is long-term and the condition is likely to recur. Where an employee is suffering from a condition covered by the Act, reasonable adjustments must be made to help them return to work.

Care must also be taken to avoid a claim for unfavourable treatment 'because of something arising in consequence' of an employee's disability.

As regards the accrual of holiday pay when a worker is on long-term sick leave, workers have the right to carry forward four weeks of their statutory holiday entitlement to the next leave year if they are unable to take it or choose not to do so in the current year owing to long-term illness. However, the leave, or the right to payment in lieu of that leave, will be lost if it is not taken within 18 months of the end of the relevant year in which the entitlement to that leave accrued.

Dealing with long-term absences, in particular, is a difficult area of the law. Each case must be decided on its own merits and proper procedures must be followed. Employers who have not done so for a while are advised to review stress management and long-term absence policies and procedures so that potential problems are identified early on and remedial action is taken as soon as possible.

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.