Friday, 6 April 2012

Simple Steps to Managing Sickness and Absence in the Workplace

In a recent poll of SME business owners by Citation plc, sickness and absence from work are the issues that most worry them. 21% of those polled believed that sickness and other unauthorised absence had the biggest impact on their business, bigger than disciplinary issues, grievances, redundancy and the economy.

Getting the best out of people when they are at work is one thing, but getting them to attend work regularly is a different matter entirely. Non-planned, unauthorised absences are the most disruptive to any organisation, but for SMEs in particular each employee is a larger percentage of the total workforce and so a bigger loss if they are unexpectedly absent. In such circumstances it is more important to focus upon the individual employee than on trends or overall statistics.

Managing Short-Term Sickness

Ergonomists will advise on how to change aspects of the working environment to improve attendance and performance; but from a practical employment law perspective the following guidance is pertinent to the management of absence from the workplace.

We've all experienced it at one time or another during our working life - "I'm not feeling too good today, can I be bothered to go to work or not?" and levels of short term absence in a business depend on each individual's answer to this question.

In many cases where the employee is motivated, committed, conscientious etc. the answer is going to be "OK, I'm a bit under the weather, but I'm well enough to go in." For others, however, where the motivation and commitment are just not there, the more likely outcome is "I'm ill; I can't be bothered; I'm not going in."

With some employees an employer can never do enough to get them to choose the first option. The employees don't have any commitment to the job and would rather be doing something, anything, else. Hopefully this doesn't describe any of your own employees. In these cases all you can do is to monitor the absences, record the details, hold return to work interviews, and, when the absence level becomes unsatisfactory, take disciplinary action.

This same monitoring, recording, return to work contact, and formal action process is, however, equally important in all cases of unplanned absence.

Implement Processes

For the majority of employees this process directly influences their decision "to attend or not to attend". In brief:

• Make it known that you actively record and monitor absences.
• Actively and consistently carry out 'return to work' interviews after every absence.
• Follow a fair procedure and, where appropriate, take disciplinary action against those employees who fall short of the attendance standards.
• Ensure that employees are aware of the impact of their absence, both on customers or clients, and on their work colleagues.
• Treat employees in the same way as you would expect to be treated.

 
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We would advise having an 'acceptable' level of absence in mind and then starting a consistent absence management process with everyone who exceeds this level. However, within this process you need to be able to respond flexibly to a particular individual's circumstances (e.g. 10 years' service with no absence, but this year they're having a spate of bad health). You also need to take into account any potential 'discrimination' issues connected with the absences. A word of warning - the statutory definition of 'disability' is very broad, and can encompass employees who are off regularly with depression, a bad back etc., and whose illness might not fi t your idea of what makes an employee 'disabled'.

Communicate Policies to your Employees

Should you tell your employees what the acceptable level of absence is or not? There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but we would advise a flexible approach by having internal, unpublished management guidance, which should ensure a consistent approach to absence management across your business.


Managing Long-Term Sickness

The focus so far has been on frequent, short-term absences that can be very disruptive to the business. Long-term sickness absence can also affect the business, and knowing when to take action to encourage a return to work or decide that the employment can no longer continue is a fine balancing act.

Once an employee has run out of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), it is seen as an easy option to just ignore them on the basis they are unlikely to come back to work but aren't costing anything. However, they remain an employee, accruing employment rights such as the right to paid holidays, so it is important to take action to identify if and when they are likely to return to work, and if not then when might it be appropriate to terminate their employment.

In such circumstances you will always be advised that, before any ultimatum can be set on a return to work date or a date for dismissal, you need to have followed a fair procedure. Part of this procedure will generally involve having medical information upon which to base your decision. Deciding on the time period after which you should be asking for this medical information can be difficult, but fortunately there is a government organisation known as 'Medical Services' that can help.

Medical Services is contracted to Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions primarily to provide medical advice on the payment of state benefits. Employers are generally unaware that they may also be able to refer employees to this service if they have been paid SSP during their absence. Medical Services has a set of 'control periods', which are periods of absence for different ailments after which it will consider a referral for medical advice. This service is free, though it normally takes longer to get a response than the more usual referral to a medical specialist who you pay for the privilege. The control periods range from four to 10 weeks depending on the ailment and Citation's Helpline can assist you in the process that needs to be followed to access to this service.

Additional Support from Citation plc

Citation clients have the support of its Helpline that can be contacted 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year to give advice on handling cases of absenteeism as well as on a wide range of other employment matters.

As part of its service to clients, Citation has 'Citmanager', an on-line personnel management system that includes a process by which sickness and other unauthorised absences can be recorded, monitored, and reported upon, providing relevant and accurate information to help manage absenteeism. 


Citation plc is one of the UK's largest Health & Safety and Employment Law firms, with over 6,500 UK businesses as clients. As a DHF preferred supplier of Health & Safety and Employment Law compliance solutions Citation offer preferential rates to DHF members.

For further details call 0845 844 1111 or visit www.citation.co.uk/affinity/dhf.




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