How to manage absence in the workplace

Posted on November 24, 2015

Absence in the workplaceOne of the biggest demands for employers is to ensure that sickness and absence at work are being managed correctly. Failure to do so could lead to substantial losses, either financially or through a breakdown in positive employee relations. In fact, according to a CBI report on workplace health, the direct cost of absence on the UK economy is £14billion a year1.

From having the correct policies in place to spotting signs of harassment and bullying, it's vital to keep your finger on the pulse in ensuring the welfare of your staff. Equally as important, you'll need to be able to spot when discipline is required, and know the legal ins and outs of things such as maternity/paternity leave and statuary sick pay. Here are some tips on how to ensure you're doing everything you can for both your staff and your company when it comes to dealing with absence.

Be aware of the reasons for absence

A good starting point when it comes to dealing with employee absence is being aware of the possible reasons behind why they could be missing work. Are they off due to poor physical health, or is it mental health concerns that are causing them to miss work? Things such as anxiety and stress could be being caused by the work itself, which will require an entirely different approach to physical illness. Absence could also be caused by family or emotional issues, which is why it's important to provide a solid support network in the place of work - one that is not hostile to the prospect of taking time off. However, absence could also simply be down to poor staff performance. Perhaps you've spotted a pattern in a particular member of staff's absence and are beginning to doubt their reasons for missing work. A situation like this requires a proper policy to be in place in order for it to be dealt with professionally and fairly.

Dealing with short term absence

When it comes to short term absence there are several things your employee should do as a standard. Firstly, they should inform you as soon as possible if they aren't going to be attending work due to sickness, preferably within an hour of their normal start time. If they're off for seven consecutive days or less (including the weekend), they should provide a self-certificate. However, if they're off for seven days or more (including the weekend), they should request a Statement of Fitness for Work (Fit Note) from their GP and give this to their manager. This note will give you a GP's advice on when they will be fit to return to work, as well as things like whether they should return to work gradually or take on lighter duties at first.

Dealing with long term absence

Long term absence can be more complex than short term absence, with things to consider such as whether you'll need to hire a temporary replacement, and whether you think your employee is avoiding returning to work for some other reason than they're letting on. To manage long term absence, you should strive to maintain regular contact with your employee, be clear about their sick pay, and think about whether you should ask the employee for permission to speak with their GP. This may be helpful in determining when a return to work is possible, whether full recovery can be expected and whether the employee needs to return to less stressful work. It's vital to ensure that you're covered with a good corporate insurance policy to ensure you can afford things such as hiring a replacement.

When to take disciplinary action

When dealing with short term absence, there may be cause to take disciplinary action. For example, if your employee has been off work for more than seven consecutive days and cannot provide a Fit Note. It's also unacceptable for an employee to fail to attend work without making any attempt to inform you. For unexplained poor attendance, you should make your employee aware of the implications this could have for their position within your company. Further, they must be told if they're putting their job at risk.

When to be flexible

There are times where a certain amount of leniency should be applied when it comes to managing unexplained or lengthy absence, for example, in the event of an emergency or serious family/personal problem. When your employee does eventually inform you of their circumstances, ensure they gain the reassurance and support they need. Again, this is where a good insurance policy will come in useful, for example if your employee needed to take time off in the long term to deal with grief. 

Overall, when managing absence in the workplace, it pays to be understanding. A hostile attitude to sickness will undoubtedly lead to low staff morale. Remember, people can't help getting ill or experiencing personal problems and these are often the times in which they need the most support. So with a little discretion, and the proper procedures in place, absence needn't be a problem you can't overcome.


1. CBI: Absence and workplace health survey 2013 (PDF)