Managing sickness and ill health

Sickness sucks for everybody involved.

Sickness is one of the number one causes of pain for both employers and employees. The situation only gets more complicated when there aren’t clear guidelines in place within your company for what happens when an employee takes short or long term sickness.

As an employer you are entitled to manage sickness absence provided it follows a fair procedure. But what is fair? Well the factors that you need to consider are: whether absence is made up of a number of short-term intermittent absences or one or more longer periods. The Bradford Factor was created as one way of measuring this.

Broadly speaking, managers use a different approach for managing short intermittent periods of absence compared with long-term absence due to sickness.

What are your absence management procedures?

You need to make sure that the absence policies that you have in place are easily accessed by your staff.

Top Tip

In Staff Squared this is simple, you just upload the policies to the Shared Files section and all of your staff can then access them. You can even tick a box to request that your staff have confirmed they have read the documents you have uploaded so there is a complete audit trail.

You can include the procedure in the contracts of employment for your staff but usually it’s easier and just as effective to reference the fact that the policies exist in the staff contracts.

Top Tip

Cross referencing a single location where all of your policies are stored makes it easier to update them as you don’t have to send out new staff contracts each time!

Even if you don’t have a written absence management procedure you must still follow a fair procedure that is completed over a reasonable period of time.

The exact procedure that you should take will always vary for each individual case. You must have a wide degree of flexibility but at each stage you must act reasonably and be able to justify a decision based on reliable and up to date medical evidence.

In all cases, however, you should try to find out more about the nature, extent, likely cause of and duration of the absence(s). All of this information should be noted on your staff file.

Managing short-term and intermittent absences

Short-term absence typically involves periods of absence of one or two days at a time. These types of absences attract a high Bradford Factor score, and are very difficult to plan and manage your team around.

To kick off you should investigate the reason for the absences, whether there is any underlying cause (medical or otherwise) and whether further absences are likely.

It isn’t usually worth the effort to seek a medical opinion on these types of absences but you can if you wish.

If after considering the sickness absence record, you conclude that the level of absence is unacceptable, you can follow a disciplinary or capability procedure to deal with this concern.

In all cases, you should invite the employee to a formal meeting to discuss their poor attendance.

During this meeting it is likely to want to explore and discuss the following points:

  • the effect of the absence on their colleagues;
  • the effect of the absence on the business;
  • whether the level of absence is likely to continue;
  • whether there are any changes that could be made to reduce the level of absence;
  • whether there is an underlying condition which is causing the short-term absence; and
  • whether it is appropriate to give a formal warning for the unacceptable level of absence.

Formal warnings for short-term absences

A formal warning can be issued if the level of sickness is unacceptable. The warning would outline why the level of sickness is unacceptable, and explain what improvement your staff member should make in order to resolve the issue.

You may set a maximum limit on the number of days absent within a given period, or limit the number of times the employee can be absent within a given period, or set a combination of the two.

Top Tip

The Bradford Factor takes in to account the number of days absence but focuses on the number of occurrences too. It’s useful as an objective measurement of whether a staff member has taken unacceptable amounts of sick leave.

If the attendance does not improve to a suitable standard you may hold one or more further formal meetings with the employee. You may then issue a warning at the end of each meeting.

Dismissing a staff member for short-term absences

If the employee’s attendance does not improve you may dismiss them. Most fair absence policies allow for two formal warnings before it is fair to dismiss the staff member. However, if the employee takes too many intermittent days off on sick leave there will come a time when you can fairly dismiss them.

Managing long-term ill health absences

Long-term absence is an entirely different issue to short-term intermittent absences, and requires a much more methodical and sometimes lengthy approach to resolving it. At a very high level here are the steps you should take in order to understand and attempt to assist a member of staff who is absent on long-term sick leave.

Step 1: Understand the cause of the absence and the likelihood of your staff member returning to work

A long-term absence is usually one that is measured in weeks and not days. We usually see managers start their long-term absence investigations for staff members who have been off for more than four weeks.

You will want to understand how long the absence is likely to last, and if and when the employee is likely to be able to return to their normal duties.

It’s reasonable to approach a doctor or hospital to provide a medical report about your member of staff. The report will generally include information about the medical condition, the prognosis for recovery and any associated timescales.

You will require your staff member’s consent to approach their medical practitioner regardless of who that is. Most staff will be more than happy to work with you to obtain the information you need as it only confirms their sickness.

Top Tip

If the member of staff needs to see a specialist and hasn’t already it’s entirely reasonable to offer to pay for them to see somebody that you nominate. By paying for this professional help, you’re also entitled to request ongoing updates from the professional which keeps you in the loop.

It might be the case that your long-term sick staff member doesn’t wish for you to contact their doctor. Unfortunately when this is the case you just have to make decisions based on the information you have to hand.

In an ideal world you want to make decisions with the most up to date and accurate medical information available. If your employee does not agree or cooperate with your requests you are allowed to make decisions about their future employment based on the information you already have and from the reasonable assumptions about their ill health.

Step 3: Meeting with the employee

It might not be feasible for your sick member of staff to return to the workplace for a meeting, so you can meet with them at any location outside of the office so long as it suits both parties.

There’s a number of items you’ll want to discuss with the employee when you meet. At a high level you should cover:

  • whether they are likely to be able to return to work;
  • the likely date of any return to work;
  • whether or not they have a disability;
  • whether they can return to their job and if so what you might have to do to assist their return;
  • if they cannot return to their job, what alternative roles they can do and whether there are any vacancies;
  • whether there are other options to explore such as early ill health retirement or permanent health insurance; and
  • the logistics and practical points of the employee returning to work including arranging a phased return.

Hopefully you will be able to assist and manage your employee back to work, even if they have to agree to do a different or modified role.

Top Tip

Sometimes it’s a good idea to gently ease somebody back in to work rather than having them come back in on full time hours. If your employee can afford to take a reduction in salary for a short amount of time and slowly ramp up this might be less stressful for them.

If after all relevant factors and issues have been fairly explored it proves not possible to accommodate the employee’s return to work or if it is no longer reasonable for you to wait any longer for them to get better then you might not be left with any choice but to dismiss the employee.

Step 4: Dismissal

This is every managers’ nightmare. The employee has taken a long time off of work due to sickness and for whatever reason they’re not able to commit to returning to work and possibly cannot evidence their illness fully.

First you need to make sure that they’re not capable of returning to any job in your company. Notice the bold there. If they’re capable of working in any job in your company you must first explore that avenue.

Assuming it’s simply not possible for your employee to return, you should write to them to request a meeting and advise them you’re considering a dismissal. The meeting would need to explore all of the factors you have taken in to account and then advise them of your decision that sadly you need to dismiss them.

You should confirm your decision to dismiss the employee in writing and give them a right to appeal. Where possible, the appeal will be chaired by a more senior manager than the person who dismisses the employee but in reality this might not always be possible.

You’ve reached the end of this ebook. We hope you enjoyed it.

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