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Managing sickness absence

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Most people will have a short period of time off sick from work at some point. This is not generally a cause for concern. Continued high absence however can put colleagues and the service you provide under strain.

The information below explains:

  • the legal background
  • what support you can give to staff
  • the procedures you can follow to maximise attendance.

See also Wellbeing at work and Managing stress.

Legal background

  • Under the Health and Safety at Work Act, you have a responsibility to protect the health and safety of your employees. If your employee is more vulnerable to physical or psychological risk on return to work because of their illness, injury or disability, you have an extra responsibility to protect them.
  • If an absence record contains specific medical information relating to an employee, this is deemed sensitive data and must be handled accordingly. See Keeping records, data protection and IT.
  • If you are contemplating dismissing an employee on the grounds of ill health, the legal reason for the dismissal is ‘capability.’ Prior to taking this step, you must give prior warnings that employment is at risk and you should seek medical advice, subject to the employee’s consent under the Access to Medical Report Act 1998. You must also consult with the employee about the situation.
  • If you dismiss an employee for misconduct related to sickness absence, such as persistent failure to follow the sickness absence procedures, the reason for the dismissal is ‘conduct’. You must follow your disciplinary procedure and the Acas Code on Discipline and Grievances. See Disciplinary matters.
  • If an employee has a disability which is affecting their attendance, your first step must be to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to enable the employee to improve their attendance. Under the Equality Act 2010, you have a legal responsibility to make any adjustments that are reasonable to make.

Statutory Sick Pay

If an employee is ill you must pay them Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), subject to their eligibility. SSP is payable after three ‘waiting days’, ie it is payable on the fourth day. It is payable for up to 28 weeks.

See the government overview of Statutory Sick Pay.

Contractual sick pay

You may have contractual arrangements that are more favourable than SSP. An example might be four weeks’ full pay and four weeks’ half pay in any rolling 12-month period. This payment would be inclusive of any SSP to which the employee may be entitled.

In setting contractual sick pay, consider what similar employers pay as well as what you could afford to pay, should someone be on long-term sick leave.

Sickness absence policy/procedure

You should have a sickness absence policy and procedure, so that mutual expectations and support are clear.  You can access a sample absence policy and procedure at appendix 3 of the Acas guide to managing attendance and employee turnover.

Your sickness absence procedure should include how employees need to notify you if they are not well enough to come into work. On their return, they should either submit a self-certificate (for absences of seven days or less) or a ‘fit note’ from a medical practitioner (from the eighth day of absence onwards). You can access an example self-certificate on GOV.UK. Although this form states it will be used from the fourth day of absence, in practice, most employers will request a self-certificate from the first day of absence.

Recording and analysing absence

Attendance problems may arise when:

  • the ‘odd day off sick’ becomes a regular thing
  • short-term sickness becomes a longer-term situation.

It is advisable to keep records of sickness absence, so that you can spot trends early on. You may have an electronic HR system from which you can draw sickness absence statistics. Alternatively, a spreadsheet of absences can be just as effective for a smaller organisation.

The Acas advisory booklet on personal data and record keeping (pdf, 1.1MB) contains some templates for individual records of absence and monthly summaries of absence.  

Return to work meeting

A return to work meeting occurs between manager and employee when the employee returns to work after sickness absence. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found that return to work meetings are one of the most effective management actions in increasing employee attendance. Such meetings do not have to be long. They show that the employee is valued and that their absence has been noted.

See further guidance about returning to work on the Acas website.

Trigger points

You should consider using ‘trigger points’ in your sickness absence policy. Trigger points are an indication that absence levels are becoming of concern and are a prompt for a review. Below is an example statement on trigger points from a charity’s sickness absence policy:

A review of your absence and health may occur, if there are:
  • three absences in any rolling three-month period
  • five absences in any rolling 12-month period
  • a total of 11 days or more in any rolling 12-month period
  • apparent patterns or trends in your absence.

For short term absence, reaching a trigger point would prompt a discussion with manager and employee about the reasons for the absence and what action might be taken to improve wellbeing and attendance.

In respect of long-term absence, the trigger points might be the stage at which the organisation might arrange a home visit or seek a formal prognosis from an occupational health specialist and/or the individual’s GP.

Dealing with short term recurring absence

If an employee is repeatedly absent for short periods of one or two days at a time, this can be disruptive for the organisation as well as detrimental to the employee’s own work performance.

You can find out about how to deal with short-term absence using the Acas guide to managing absence from work and in the Acas advisory booklet on managing attendance and employee turnover (PDF, 569KB).

Sickness absence during pregnancy

If an employee is sick during her pregnancy and you have concerns about the levels of sickness and/or the employee’s wellbeing, you are advised to seek advice. Call the Acas free helpline on 0300 123 1100.

You should note that if a woman is sick during the four weeks before her baby is due and the sickness is partly or wholly related to her pregnancy, her maternity leave is automatically triggered.

Managing longer-term absence

Managing longer-term absence requires a sensitive approach. Make sure you keep in touch with the employee during absence.

Seeking medical advice

Employers are not generally medical professionals. Where an employee has a health problem preventing them from attending work, medical advice should be sought, either from a specialist occupational health provider or from the employee’s GP.

If you are contemplating terminating employment on the grounds of ill health, you should always seek medical advice as well as consulting with the employee. If you do not, any subsequent dismissal is likely to be deemed as unfair.

Under the Access to Medical Reports Act 1998, the employee must give their written consent for you to contact their GP and must be given the opportunity to review any medical report before it is passed to you. They have the right at this stage for the report to be withheld.

If an employee does not permit you to have access to medical information, then you are entitled to take a decision on their ongoing employment without the benefit of that medical information.

You are advised to call Acas on 0300 123 1100 to gain further information about how to seek medical advice and the procedures you must follow. You can also access written guidance about how to refer someone to their GP (or other medical practitioner), at appendix 4 of the Acas guide to discipline and grievances at work (PDF, 840KB).

Further information

Page last edited Apr 06, 2020

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