Periods of employee absence are inevitable, but they can be disruptive, especially for small businesses where each individual makes up a significant proportion of the entire workforce.
In an effort to keep disruption to a minimum in the short term, you might be tempted to cut corners with absence management. It’s vital, however, to ensure you treat everyone fairly and in compliance with UK employment law. Having up to date policies in place for each type of leave and absence will help you do this.
Implementing an absence management process will also help you stay consistent, and ensure you gather all the necessary documentation you’ll need to keep absence records up to date. You’ll need this information so that you can pay absent employees appropriately. It’s also vital to help you to defend yourself, should your treatment of staff ever be brought under scrutiny.
Following an absence management process will also help you to identify staff reaching unacceptable levels of sickness, and deter staff from abusing their entitlement to sick leave.
In this post we set out the main types of absence you need to know how to manage within your business:
• Short-term sickness absence
• Absence management
• Long-term sickness absence
• The Bradford Factor
• Unauthorised absence
• Annual Leave
• Compassionate and bereavement leave
• Garden Leave
• Emergency Time Off
• Maternity, Paternity and Shared Parental leave
Short-term sickness absence
Typically, short-term sickness is a period of sickness that lasts less than 4 weeks.
The following tips will help you manage this type of absence.
Tips for managing absence:
Make it a contractual requirement for staff to notify you of their absence.
Make sure they know:
- who they should report their absence to
- the method of communication you prefer them to use
- the time you expect them to have notified you by.
We recommend you always ask employees to call in and speak to you / their manager personally. Having a proper conversation will help you to get a better understanding of the likely length of absence and what arrangements you might need to put in place to provide cover. A telephone call also discourages people from faking a sickness for a day off.
Asking the following questions may help you to understand and record the reasons for absence and to help you to plan ahead:
- Do you know how long you’re likely to be off work for?
- Could you call me again in the morning to update me on how you’re feeling and whether you’re likely to be in work?
- What’s the best contact number to get you on?
- Is there any urgent work you need us to cover today in your absence?
If the employee says that they’re likely to be absent for over a week, suggest they make an appointment with their GP so that they can obtain a Fit Note.
Keep accurate records of all communication you’ve had with the employee regarding their illness as you may need to refer to this at a later date.
Determine and clearly communicate the level of absence the business considers unacceptable, and the actions that will be taken when that limit is breached. Be sure to treat everyone the same when they reach that limit.
Conduct return to work interviews, taking notes for your records. This doesn’t have to be a formal sit-down interview, it can be a casual 5 minute chat. The key is to ensure that the employee is well enough to be back at work, and that they understand that their absence has been noted.
Review an individual’s absences with them if they reach an unacceptable level of sickness absence. Highlight your concerns and consider starting formal attendance management procedures.
Make reasonable adjustments to help those with disabilities return to work.
Avoid questioning whether an absence is genuine without solid evidence to indicate otherwise or without first carrying out an investigation; very few employers are medical experts and it’s best to avoid this minefield!
Long-term sickness absence
Sickness absences longer than 4 weeks are typically considered ‘long-term’.
While an employee on long-term sick can be particularly challenging on a business, there’s considerable employment law in place to prevent employers discriminating against employees on long-term sick.
In instances of long-term sickness, we also recommend the following steps:
Communicate with the employee when they’re off, once before the four-week mark, and regularly after that.
Try and meet at regular intervals after the four weeks to gather more information on their condition and the likelihood of returning to work. You would normally seek this information from your employee’s GP via a Fit Note, or an occupational health service.
You may also want to review whether there’s a need to recruit a temporary member of staff to cover the period of absence.
If you’re unable to foresee an imminent return to work and you’ve
- met regularly with the employee
- sought medical advice
- and investigated what reasonable adjustments you can make to assist their return to work,
it may be appropriate to undertake a final review to consider whether you need to end the employment as a result of ill health.
Self-certification and Fit Notes
If an employee is unwell and away from work for 7 days or less (this includes non-working days, i.e. weekends), they can self-certify on their return to work. This simply means they can declare the reason for their absence without providing medical evidence.
For sickness absence lasting longer than 7 days, you should request that the employee obtains a GP Fitness to Work certificate (Fit Note or Medical Certificate) advising on the reason for their absence and whether they’re fit to return to work, and to what capacity.
Managing recurring absence – when to consider a formal process
The ‘trigger point’ where you begin a formal process for absence management should be set out in your Sickness Absence Policy, so that all staff are aware and can see that they’re being treated equally, in line with policy.
It can be useful, as an individual reaches this threshold, to raise the matter with them during their return to work interview. You may say something like:
- I’ve noticed that you’ve had a number of sickness absences lately- is everything okay?
- Do you realise that it’s been ‘x’ times in the past ‘x’ months? Have you thought about going to your GP?
- Is everything alright with your work- is there anything you want to discuss?
It may be that a medical condition comes to light during this discussion. If this is the case, you’ll need to find out a bit more about their condition and the impact it has on their attendance before you proceed to the formal stage of the procedure and certainly before you consider issuing a warning.
Otherwise, use this time to set clear targets for improvement. Make sure the employee is aware that if their absence continues without improvement, you will need to consider instigating the formal Sickness Absence Policy. However, in our experience if you raise concerns regarding sickness levels informally, attendance levels will often improve without having to start a formal procedure.
Don’t forget to accurately and thoroughly record everything that is discussed during these meetings.
The Bradford Factor
You may have heard about The Bradford Factor in relation to managing staff absence at work. But what exactly is it?
The Bradford Factor is designed to flag up a pattern of problematic absence by scoring employee’s absence based on both the length and frequency of absence.
The research behind the system indicates that frequent short-term absences are more disruptive to a business than infrequent, longer-term absence. So, someone taking numerous non-consecutive absences would accrue a higher score than someone absent for the same number of days, but in one consecutive block.
Some HR software (including ours) automatically incorporates the Bradford Factor into its sickness reporting system to help you calculate the impact of staff sickness on your business.
Statutory sick pay (SSP)
All employers must apply Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) as a minimum for all eligible employees on sick leave. In addition to this some companies also choose to offer an enhanced sick pay scheme. This will be detailed in the contract of employment and could be anything from two weeks sick pay per year, to 6 months.
Under SSP the first 3 qualifying days (usually the days an employee was due to work) of the employee’s sickness is unpaid. The employee is only entitled to receive SSP on the 4th qualifying day, providing that the sickness has been continuous for a minimum of 4 days (including non-working days).
Note that if someone only works 2 days a week, for example, they will only be paid SSP if they are off for two calendar weeks, ie, if Tuesday and Wednesday were their working days, the Tuesday and Wednesday of the first week, and the Tuesday of the second week would be the three unpaid qualifying days.
If an employee fails to turn up for work without having previously booked the time off, and does not contact you on the morning of their absence, this would be considered unauthorised absence.
It’s appropriate for you to contact them to request why they are absent. If they fail to provide a suitable explanation this could warrant disciplinary action. Your contract may also entitle you to deduct money from their pay in the event of unauthorised absence.
Other types of employee absence
In line with the European Working Time Directive and our UK Working Time Regulations, full and part-time employees and workers have a statutory entitlement to a minimum of 5.6 weeks (28 days if full time) paid holiday per year. This can include bank/ public holidays, but you must make it clear in your employment contracts if annual leave entitlement includes these.
Part-time workers are entitled to a pro rata proportion of the same minimum levels of holiday.
Workers are entitled to receive their ‘normal’ pay during holidays. This can include commission and overtime or regular allowances.
When calculating holiday, you also need to be aware that holiday entitlement is accrued during maternity, paternity and adoption leave, and while employees are off sick.
It can get tricky, especially for those working irregular hours. But as an employer, you’re obliged by employment law to get holiday leave and pay right. So, it’s always worth seeking advice to make sure you’re calculating holiday pay correctly if you’re at all unsure.
Booking annual leave
An employer has leeway to decide how and when holiday is applied for and taken in the holiday year as long as it is clearly set out in the contract of employment. If the contract is silent then the rules under the Working Time Regulations apply.
Provided your contract is clear enough, you can determine how much notice of holiday is given, you can refuse holidays and you can insist on the number of days’ holiday that can be taken at one time.
Employers can also tell staff to take leave on certain days, i.e. Christmas day, and prevent employees taking leave during certain periods of the year, i.e. during a particularly busy period.
As a legal entitlement for all your staff, it’s important to manage annual leave correctly. Using HR software to calculate leave allowances and record holiday can really help here, reducing the risk of human error that might see staff unfairly denied holiday.
Compassionate and Bereavement Leave
Currently in the UK, employers are only obliged to grant an employee time off to manage the emergency of a deceased dependant. Beyond this, compassionate leave and pay is at the employer’s discretion.
Having a compassionate leave policy in place can help you manage these more challenging requests for leave.
Garden leave, (also known as gardening leave) is when an employee is asked not to work or attend the business premises while they serve their notice period, but they continue to receive their usual salary and contractual benefits.
You may want to put an employee on garden leave if you feel doing so would help protect your business interests, i.e. by restricting the employee’s access to commercially sensitive information during their notice period.
Emergency Leave / Emergency time off
Employees are entitled to a ‘reasonable amount’ of time off to deal with an emergency (typically an illness, injury, assault or disruptions to the care that would usually be in place) involving a dependant. This could be a spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent, or someone who is dependent on the employee for care.
It’s at the employer’s discretion whether or not this time off will be paid. And whatever you decide, it’s important you’re consistent in your approach.
Maternity, Paternity and Shared Parental Leave
Parents taking time off to care for their child are protected by strict equality and discrimination laws. It’s important that you keep up to date with these laws to make sure you don’t discriminate.
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How we can help
With citrusHR’s support service, we can help you to manage sickness, leave and absence in the right way. The specific help we can provide includes:
- Practical advice for your situation from our qualified HR consultants
- A full set of legally compliant HR documents including a Sickness and Absence policy, tailored to the specific needs of your business and made available to all your staff
- Our web-based HR software enables you to record and monitor the full range of employee leave and absence.