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It costs to be sick

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The annual cost of sickness absence has climbed to almost £29 billion for UK organisations, according to a study published recently by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD.) Neil Atkinson highlights the key points when addressing absenteeism in the workplace, and how it’s best to tackle these issues…

Managing repeated sickness

Repeated sickness absence may have an impact on motivation and productivity levels generally. It is therefore crucial that business owners try to establish the root cause of a protracted pattern of sickness absence and, if necessary, take steps to tackle it.

In the first instance, it’s important to try and chart the pattern of an employee’s sick leave. Does it tend to occur at the start of a week or the end of a week? Does it coincide with significant events, such as a payday, birthday or sporting event? Does the employee tend to go on sick leave on the same day, or days, during the week? If an employer can ask these questions first then they will go some way to identifying whether the periods of absence are suspicious or explainable. 

If the answer gives cause for concern, here are some pointers that small and mediums sized enterprises (SMEs) can deploy:

Establish a reason for repeated sick leave

Hold a ‘return-to-work’ meeting after each absence to establish the reason for their absence and if there is anything in their work or private life that may be a contributing factor.  A return-to-work meeting allows the business owner to talk privately about the pattern, reasons and impact on the business.  

Ask whether they see a pattern and ask if there is anything you can help with or offer support on.  There is a possibility that there may be an underlying medical condition, and the employer may wish to obtain the employee's permission to access a medical report which should provide further information.

Explain the impact of the repeated absences

Ask if there is a reason for the pattern, and explain the impact of the absences, such as co-workers being forced to take on additional duties to cover their work, and impacted productivity. The employee may not be aware that their sickness absence is causing so many problems for the business. The employer should discuss the reasons for their absences and listen to what they have to say. An occupational health assessment could be a useful tool in gauging whether the sickness absence can be attributed to a medical issue. 

Explain the impact of the repeated absences

Ask if there is a reason for the pattern, and explain the impact of the absences, such as co-workers being forced to take on additional duties to cover their work, and impacted productivity. The employee may not be aware that their sickness absence is causing so many problems for the business. The employer should discuss the reasons for their absences and listen to what they have to say. An occupational health assessment could be a useful tool in gauging whether the sickness absence can be attributed to a medical issue. 

What about their work-life balance?

Ask about their work-life balance. There may be a real and legitimate reason why the employee is taking the time off, such as a spouse being unwell. This may well be the opportunity they need to open up and tell you what it is they are hiding.

Have a policy on sickness absence

Employers should ensure that they have in place a clearly worded sickness absence policy, including rules on notification, required evidence, payment of sick pay and return-to-work interviews. 

Statutory sick pay

Employees are entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP) from the fourth day of sickness absence for a period of up to 28 weeks (they may also be entitled to sick pay, if their contract states it). After the 28 weeks of SSP are over, or if the employee is not eligible for SSP, they need to claim Employment support allowance (ESA). An employer is entitled to seek information from an employee about their sickness and require them to attend meetings, - if they are well enough to do so.

Is there anything that can be done to help?

If an employee has a disability, the employer should consider whether there are any “reasonable adjustments” that can be made which would enable the employee to return to work, in accordance with the Equality Act. In appropriate cases these might include allowing the employee to work from home or temporarily altering the working hours or allowing a “phased return” to work. For further information, see details on the Equality Act.

Whatever the eventual reason is for the repeated sickness absence, employers should never choose the easy way out and ignore it. There are two main and divergent reasons for this: namely that potential issues concerning home life, or even disability, can be identified at an early stage. The converse reason is that intentionally false sickness absence can be nipped in the bud at an early stage.

Neil Atkinson

By Neil Atkinson

Neil Atkinson, managing director of Deminos, the HR and employment law experts

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