Managing absence in small businesses
5th September 2017
When you run a small business with a limited team, absence can be at best frustrating, and at worst catastrophic. From the cost of providing care to the employee through sick pay, to lost hours or the expense of hiring temporary cover, it can make for a tricky time financially. That’s why it’s so important you have a sickness absence policy for your business, to help you manage your team and stop absence becoming a larger issue than it needs to be.
What needs to be included in a sickness absence policy?
There are many topics you’ll want to cover in your sickness absence policy. Some are simply basic processes while others are useful tools to help you stop people taking advantage.
The first thing to cover is notification of illness. You need to clearly explain how you want to be informed if someone is ill and unable to attend work. A standard rule is for employees to get in touch via phone call within an hour of their scheduled shift time. This may vary – if you have night shifts, you may require longer notice periods. The employee should always call you themselves, unless they are physically incapable – make sure this is clear.
It should also address illness certification. This is standard, but you need to make sure your employees are aware. If an illness lasts 7 days or less, the employee can self-certificate. However, if it lasts longer than a week, a doctor’s note is required. If they fail to provide one, find out why – you may need to take disciplinary action.
Your policy should also cover sick pay. You need to be clear on what pay you offer for employees during absence. You aren’t obligated to pay staff in full for time that they are absent. The only legal requirement is that you offer Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). This is only payable for absences that last more than 3 days, and the amount is £89.35 per week. Any amount you choose to offer above this is at your discretion, and you may wish to offer this as a loyalty bonus – many companies offer a number of fully paid sick days depending on length of service.
Some companies like to offer incentives to employees who are able to go for a full calendar year without any sickness absence, with perhaps a small bonus. This may not be appropriate depending on the size of your business, and it can create problems with presenteeism, which we cover further below. If you want to offer an attendance bonus, it doesn’t have to be included in your sickness absence policy but you may wish to repeat it here.
When employees can come back after illness, you should carry out a Return to Work interview. You should detail this process in your sickness policy. The interview should welcome the employee back, and check they are definitely fit to return. If they have a doctor’s note which recommends only a partial return, you can use this interview to define which regular duties will be postponed. These interviews are a key part of you keeping track of staff absence, and it holds your employees accountable.
Finally, you should consider what disciplinary action you may wish to take against people who are absent too frequently, and ensure this is as clear as possible in your policy. A common rule to implement is when an employee hits a certain trigger within a set period – for example, four periods of absence within a calendar year, or a total of 12 days absence in a calendar year.
It’s vital you’re clear on what the rules are, and what action may result. You may not be able to immediately terminate an employee but a verbal or written warning could be sufficient, and it may be a contributing factor to termination if an employee already has warnings on their record.
The problem of presenteeism
Of course, it’s vital that you don’t set a sickness absence policy that’s too strict. Go too far and you’ll lower staff morale, which can cause your most hard-working employees to look elsewhere. Another issue to consider is presenteeism. If you are too harsh with your sickness policy, or indeed if you offer too great a reward for employees who have no sickness absences, then you may encourage staff to come to work when they aren’t fit to do so.
This can cause them to underperform for longer periods of time if they don’t fully recover. A fit and healthy worker for 1 day can be much more valuable than a poorly employee for a full week, who is lethargic and slow to react. The poorly employee may even infect other members of staff – the last thing any small business needs is a miniature epidemic which wipes out half the work force for a week just because one member of staff didn’t want to stay at home. So, make sure your policy is fair and reasonable, and doesn’t encourage people to ‘be heroes’ to fight through their symptoms.
Dealing with chronic illness
If an employee has a long-standing condition that causes them to be absent on a regular basis, you need to be careful in applying your sickness absence policy. If they informed you of their condition before they were hired, and you take disciplinary action against them, they could successfully argue they were being punished unfairly. Yet if they didn’t inform you, you’d be within your rights to apply the policy.
What’s key is in providing for your employees where possible. Is there anything you can offer them to improve their situation? It may be as simple as relocating them in the office, away from a draughty window or an air conditioning unit. Maybe flexible working hours would cut stress and resolve a mental health issue? Speak to your employee to work out what measures you can take to help deal with chronic illness.
Managing an employee with long term sickness
In some cases, an employee may become very poorly, and require a significant period of time off work. This could be a physical condition or a mental illness, and it can be damaging both to the person who is sick and your business. The important thing is to show care – you shouldn’t rush straight into absence management as part of your sickness policy.
You must keep in touch with the employee on a regular basis. This may require you to travel to meet them at their home, if they aren’t capable of visiting the office. This enables you to find out if there’s anything at work causing the illness, where you could make changes to accommodate them, and also just to find out how their illness is progressing and if there’s a chance of an imminent return to work.
You should also request a doctor’s note. An employee isn’t able to self-certificate for any long-term illness, physical or mental, so you should make sure you have an up-to-date note from the employee’s GP. You’re able to request permission to contact the GP directly if the employee hasn’t returned to work after six weeks, to find out whether it’s likely that they’ll return to work.
If it looks as though an employee can’t return to work in the foreseeable future, and you’ve ensured you’ve kept in regular touch, kept records of doctors’ notes and tried to make changes at work to accommodate the employee, you’re able to begin proceedings to terminate their contract due to their ill health. This can be a difficult decision to make, if you know the illness is completely genuine and the employee is someone that you like, but you must be reasonable and make the right choice for your business.
Keep monitoring your team
There’s no way you can stop your employees from ever getting sick. It’s part of life. Some employees will never get ill, some will be off sick a couple of times a year. Ultimately, you need to use your sickness absence policy to make sure your employees know what is expected, and if anyone tries to take liberties, you’ll have the tools you need to fairly end their employment. Look after the good employees, keep them as healthy as you can, and your business will reap the rewards.
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