7 steps to dealing with short term sickness absence

Jun 17, 2019 | Time Off Work

Persistent short term sickness absence can be incredibly disruptive, particularly in a small business, and can cause resentment among colleagues having to pick up an increased workload. Here are our 7 key steps to dealing with a short term absence problem.

1. Act promptly

Short term sickness absence issues come under the heading of Problems That Don’t Just go Away By Themselves….. The sooner you deal with it, the less disruptive it is, and the easier it is to address. Plus if you want to discipline someone for excessive sickness absence but have not raised an eyebrow until they’ve had 20 days off, you may find yourself being accused of being unreasonable as you didn’t raise the problem sooner.

2. Find out the cause

This means finding the root cause, not superficial cause. If someone has time off a lot for headaches, tummy bugs and general Monday morning-itis, those things aren’t actually the cause of the problem. Causes of regular short term absence can include

  • underlying medical conditions or disabilities
  • high susceptibility to colds and viruses, which may or may not be because of a more significant underlying condition, or because of general poor health, bad diet, lack of exercise or similar
  • tiredness, for example because of long hours, late nights out or even a second job
  • personal problems
  • challenges in the workplace, perhaps with their manager or a colleague, or struggling with workload or tasks, or difficult customers
  • demotivation
  • laziness, can’t be bothered
  • ill children or family members

Identifying what’s actually behind the problem will help you come up with the best way to address and resolve it.

3. Identify any work-related factors

If either discussions with the employee or medical notes indicate that there may be work-related factors causing or exacerbating a problem, you need to take steps to address these. This might include conflict, stress, high workload, long hours, bullying, organisational change or lack of management support. Some will be easier to resolve than others, and sometimes they only have a partial impact, but you need to take whatever reasonable steps you can to remove or reduce the impact of work-related factors on sickness absence.

4. Talk to your employee

Ask them about root causes, whether there is anything affecting them that might be causing a high rate of absence. Give them an opportunity to make you aware of anything that is behind the problem and to ask for support if they need it. Continue to ask this throughout any more formal procedure you may end up using. As well as helping reduce absence if there is anything you can do, it helps protect you later if you want to take formal action, as they will have had full opportunity to tell you if there was anything you should be taking into account

5. Return to work interviews

Return to work interviews are useful for several reasons. Firstly, they provide an additional hurdle for non-essential sickness absence. If someone is contemplating taking an illicit duvet day, the prospect of being dragged into a meeting with their manager every single time they are off is quite a disincentive. It draws more attention to their absence and highlights that you are in fact monitoring it – they are not slipping in and out under the radar. So if you have an absence problem, initiate these as a routine step every time the person is off sick.
Secondly, they are useful as a means of identifying root causes, possible support and other factors early on. Ask employees whether they visited a doctor, whether they are feeling better and whether there is anything you can do to help and support them. Return to work interviews don’t need to be long or over formal, but what was said should be recorded.

6. Be clear about what improvement is required

Sometimes employees disagree that there is a problem. This can be because they don’t themselves realise how much time off they’ve actually had, but also can be because they don’t realise what is normal and what isn’t. They need to be clear what good attendance looks like.
The national average number of sick days usually hovers around the 7-8 days a year mark, but that includes long term sickness absence, which skews the figure somewhat. Someone of normal health with good attendance would normally have less than 5 days off a year. Of course where there are underlying health or other factors, you would not be concerned at someone having more than that, but where you feel some or all of the absence wasn’t strictly necessary, a reality check about what is normal can help.

7. Consider formal procedure if no improvement

If you’ve explored reasons, offered support, taken into account other factors involved, and addressed work-related factors, and these measures have not led to an improvement in the employee’s attendance you may need to consider formal action, probably using your disciplinary procedure, or a capability procedure if you have one. It’s fine to do this, although bear in mind that employees should not be penalised for sickness absence relating to pregnancy or a disability.
If you would like further advice on dealing with short term sickness absence, do get in touch.