Managing sickness absences can be problematic at times for employers. Absences should be handled pro-actively, reasonably and fairly.

Company leaders and key departments – such as HR – should also have a grasp of the law relating to disability discrimination, as often absences can be related to an employee’s disability.

What should organisations be aware of, in order to make sure they are doing everything to correctly handle the absence?

1. Operational procedures

The starting point is ensuring that the business has a Sickness Absence Policy. This must be in writing – and communicated to employees – which clearly sets out the expected standards of attendance and reporting requirements, as well as information on sick pay, evidence of incapacity and the overall process.

HR departments and managers who may be handling sickness absences – including taking calls from sick employees – must also be trained in the process so that they have the required knowledge and understand what information they need to collect.

When an employee calls in sick, the manager should ask them the reason for their absence, the likely date of return and, if appropriate, confirm contact details. Where different departments are in contact with an employee, it is important to have a ‘joined-up’ approach so that the employee does not receive contradictory messages.

In addition, the company policy should outline what evidence of incapacity is deemed ‘acceptable’. Most organisations require employees to ‘self-certify’ for seven days of absence or less. If the absence continues beyond this point, the staff member can be required to obtains a doctor's certificate – currently referred to as a ‘fit note’.

2. Communication

It is important to keep in in regular contact, however, the amount of contact will often depend on the employee's job, and the size and culture of the business.

Contact could, for example, be limited to a regular telephone update once a fortnight where an employee is on long-term sick, or a shorter call conducted every day.

3. Knowing an employee’s rights

Managers must understand the company entitlements to Company Sick Pay (CSP) and Statutory Sick Pay (SSP).

Subject to qualification, SSP is the minimum amount of sick pay that all employees are entitled to. The Employee’s contract of employment, or company sickness policy, will set out any entitlement to CSP and the levels – such as full pay, half pay and the time periods they are paid.

4. Maintaining a record

Keeping a paper trail is one of the most important steps for an employer to undertake. It is vital to ensure an accurate and legible record is kept of all meetings and correspondence, as well as retaining file notes of telephone conversations, and records of telephone messages left.

Calls and meetings should be followed up with letters summarising the discussion, attempts taken to contact the employee, and any next steps agreed.

5. Enabling a smooth return

ACAS recommends that businesses should carry out ‘Return to Work’ interviews whenever an employee has been absent from work. Such discussions can be very useful as it allows the employee to explain the reasons for their absence, ensuring that they understand the sick policy and decide whether any further action needs to be taken.

A person is disabled for discrimination law purposes if they have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Employers are subject to a positive duty to consider, and make, reasonable adjustments for disabled employees. If it is possible that an employee has a disability and may require adjustments, you should consider seeking a medical report and/or adjust.

It is important to understand that a report is not needed in every case – especially where a need for adjustment is clear and obvious.

When frequency – or levels – of sickness absence become a problem, employers will need to consider carrying out a formal procedure. To help identify when this should take place, businesses can include ‘trigger points’ into their sickness policies. These can clearly underline when a formal procedure will apply and must take place, for example if there have been a certain number of occasions of absence within a 12-month period or single absences of more than a certain number of days.

This article first appeared in People Management HERE.


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Author: Sarah Dillon

Director, ESP Law Ltd

Sarah is a litigation expert with over 15 years’ experience. Sarah embarked on her career in employment law as an advocate for an employment law consultancy and continued as an advocate alongside being an employment law advisor for a plethora of reputable UK law firms including: DAC Beachcroft, Ward Hadaway and Richmonds Solicitors, where she was head of the employment department.

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