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Top tips for managing absence – Part 1 of 3: Managing persistent short-term absences

by in Absence, HR - Human Resources

Top tips for managing absence (Part 1 of 3)We’ve all been there. Everything’s going swimmingly and then a member of staff goes off sick. Work needs reallocating, cover needs arranging, you have a situation to manage.

How long will they be off?

How many times has this employee been off so far

If the answer to the first question is “more than a month” or the answer to the second question is “too many times”, then you need to take action.

Most of us have policies on absence but how confident are we at implementing them? What if the employee has a long-term health condition or mental health problems? What if the condition might be classed as a disability?

In Part 1 of this series, I’ll be covering ways to manage persistent short-term absences.

Where do we stand in contractual terms with an employee who is frequently off sick? Essentially it becomes an inability to fulfil the contract of employment, as attending work and working your hours is a key part of an employment contract.

If they fail to attend for health reasons, do we then treat it as a disciplinary matter?

This is something I’ve always avoided. As employers, when an employee calls in sick we’re obliged to assume the sickness is genuine. We should only consider casting aspersions when presented with evidence that implies the sickness is fabricated. So, if we’re assuming that the sickness is genuine, is it fair to issue a “warning” or even to dismiss someone? Bearing in mind this could end up on an employee’s reference and affect their future employment prospects, does it seem fair?

Let me give you an example:

Sarah started working six months ago as a receptionist. She’s 19 years old and this is her first full-time job since finishing college. Previously she’s worked in call centres where the majority of her contact with “customers” was over the phone.

She passed her probation although she had two episodes of sickness – one due to D&V and one because of a cold. Your absence policy states that staff should have no more than two episodes of sickness in any six-month period or they’ll hit a trigger point and move onto another stage of the policy.

You let her pass her probation because she’s good on the phone and works hard, and she’s good with computers which always comes in handy! You did, however, move her onto the next stage of the policy and told her that if she had another two absences in the next six months then she’d trigger the next stage, at which point termination of her contract might have to be considered.

Sarah has another episode of sickness, lasting three days, and originally tells you it’s due to a sore throat. You have a return-to-work interview with her to check everything’s okay; she’s looking a little worried and distracted. She tells you she’s finding the job quite stressful as she’s not used to dealing with people face-to-face, especially when they’re unhappy or angry. You discuss what support she might need, talk about sending her on a course for dealing with difficult people, and encourage her to talk to the other team members for advice. You explain that covering the desk is as much a part of the role as the phones are and she does need to be able to do that part of the job. She says she’ll look into the training and support you’ve suggested. You explain where she is on the policy and that one more episode will lead to an employment review and you don’t want her to end up there.

Sadly a month later she goes off sick again, this time with stress. Her absence lasts a week and on her return you have another return-to-work interview. She hasn’t acted on any of the advice you gave her. She doesn’t want to resign as she thinks she can manage if she only works on the phones. You tell her this isn’t possible, as you’ve discussed previously, and now you’ll have to discuss her attendance record with the partners.

The partners don’t believe her attendance will improve and she needs to be able to carry out every aspect of the role. She has no disability that you’re aware of and hasn’t made any efforts to address the issues previously raised. You all agree to terminate her contract.

But on what grounds?

This is where the implications for the individual need to be considered. This is a 19 year-old, in her first full-time, people-facing role. Granted, she hasn’t helped herself, but dismissing her under disciplinary action doesn’t feel right. She hasn’t displayed any misconduct, yet a reference that mentions disciplinary action will imply this. And this could prevent her from securing future employment.

Therefore, when you confirm that her contract has been terminated, and on the follow-up letter you send her, I’d be saying/writing that it was “on the grounds of an inability to maintain a good standard of attendance due to ill health”. At least this gives her the opportunity to explain to her next employer what happened. If she asks to resign instead of being dismissed, I would recommend allowing this; not only will it help her future recruitment prospects, it also pretty much removes her ability to take you to tribunal. (The only time I wouldn’t accept a resignation is if I had serious concerns about the employee which I thought a future employer would need to know, or if I was going to make a referral to a professional body.)

So here are the key tips on managing persistent, short-term absences:

  • Set clear attendance targets: All staff should know what your practice considers to be an acceptable level of attendance. Consider what measure you want to use – number of episodes, number of days lost, or use a formula such as the Bradford Factor, or a combination of these. It has to be reasonable and justifiable. A good example can be found in our Sickness Absence Management Policy [PLUS].
  • Make clear in your policy what happens when a target is breached: Have stages to the policy. One trigger point met means escalating to the next stage of the policy. It’s up to you how many stages you have and what you call them. Make it clear that a potential outcome of reaching the final stage MAY BE termination of employment (don’t say IS, or WILL BE, as the situation needs to be viewed on a case-by-case basis).
  • Focus on improving and supporting attendance, not managing absence: The process should be supportive. Your aim should be to find out why staff members are off and what can be done to minimise this. My sickness policy is called the Supporting Attendance Policy, not Managing Absence.
  • Make reasonable adjustments: Under equality legislation you have to! If you have a staff member with a confirmed disability, or someone who has an underlying health condition but you’re not sure whether it’s classed as a disability, err on the side of caution. Get an Occupational Health opinion. Adjustments should be reviewed annually – some people do get better! Do not count any pregnancy-related illness in your targets – that would be discrimination and pregnancy-related illness will eventually resolve!
  • Be careful when setting a precedent: Staff talk! If you discount one employee’s episode of absence because it was related to, for example, a personal problem at home, be aware that you may then have to do that for everyone else. My advice would be not to discount episodes at all. If the employee reaches the final stage of the policy, that’s when you need to consider the case-by-case basis.
  • Document everything: This is your evidence if you ever have to follow your policy to the end and dismiss a staff member. If they try to claim unfair dismissal, you have your policy, your return-to-work interviews and your outcome letters from formal meetings to demonstrate what you’ve done and why. If you follow your policy and the steps above, you’ll have nothing to worry about. Practice Index PLUS members can access handy templates for return-to-work interviews and review meetings. For a spreadsheet to record employee sickness and holiday, you can access the Holiday and Sickness Planner. Video below on how this works:

If you have any questions about any of the information provided in this blog, please comment below and I’ll respond.

Top Tips for Managing Absence (2) will cover managing long-term absence and will be available next week. Stay tuned!

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