I frequently get asked about the best way to deal with sickness absence. Most of my clients are small businesses who prefer not to have very bureaucratic procedures to follow and have quite personal relationships with their staff, making formal or confrontational action difficult. With that in mind I’ve put together some easy-to-implement tips for handling problem absence, giving small employers the chance to make a real difference to their absence levels without having to get over-formal.
WHAT IS PROBLEM ABSENCE?
Ultimately whether you consider a level of absence to be a problem will be your call, and will probably depend on how much time off has been taken, what reasons are given for the absence and the previous record of the employee in question. It could be lots of different incidences of absence, a large quantity of days absent or a ‘pattern’ of absence, for example, lots of Mondays or Fridays off.
HOW SHOULD I DEAL WITH PROBLEM ABSENCE?
Here are some simple steps you can take which will quickly resolve most problem absence patterns. No drama, no formal action, no awkwardly formal procedure, just results:
As with any employment issue, dealing with it sooner rather than later maximises the chance of addressing the problem successfully and minimises the disruption, stress and time required.
Return to work interviews
If an employee is having frequent absences for minor ailments, it is often partly because the employee feels they can easily ‘slip in and out’ of work almost unnoticed or with little or no consequence.
Return to work interviews are particularly successful for this type of absence problem. If employees know that every single time they phone in sick, even for one day, they will have to sit down for a return to work interview and will be quizzed about their absence, it is much less tempting to ‘throw a sickie’!
When you are dealing with an absence problem, make sure you do a return to work interview EVERY SINGLE TIME. It may feel silly, especially in an informal small business environment, but it’s the consequence every time that changes the behaviour. It doesn’t have to feel formal – just a discussion about how they are feeling, whether they saw the doctor, whether there are any concerns they have, but just make sure a sit-down one-to-one conversation happens every time.
Limit sick pay
It sounds harsh but one of the most effective ways of sorting out an absence problem can be stopping pay. If the consequence of a day off work is losing a day’s pay, that duvet seems a lot less tempting. Ensure there are conditions attached or some level of discretion applying to any occupational sick pay you offer, giving you the flexibility you need to handle each situation.
It’s easy to get into the habit of not recording absence if your employees are only off occasionally, or you tend to pay them full pay. However if the ‘odd day off sick’ becomes more regular or turns into longer term absence, it will be difficult to deal with or even notice if you do not keep records.
Make sure you give the employee every opportunity to raise any concerns they may have or request any additional help or support they need. Make sure concerns are addressed if they are reasonable. Doing this will protect you later if you need to take more formal action.
Review your procedure
Make sure your sickness absence procedure is fit-for-purpose, and works for you. Small changes like requiring employees to speak to you personally each morning they are off sick rather than allowing messages, texts or emails, can make a big difference. It is less tempting to stay in bed if you have to speak to your boss than if you can send a quick text.
A note on dealing with more serious absence problems
If you have followed all the steps outlined above and there is a still an absence problem, you may then have to treat the absence as a conduct issue and use the disciplinary procedure. However if you are confident there is a genuine ill health problem rather than a conduct problem, and it is impacting on the employee’s ability to be effective in their job, you should treat the absence as a capability issue and approach it with sensitivity. When issuing a disciplinary warning or dealing with a capability issue, it is highly recommended you seek guidance from an employment law or HR specialist. You should only consider dismissal as a last resort, after exploring all other avenues.
In summary, you will find you can make serious inroads on sickness absence levels and therefore on your bottom line by following our ‘top tips’;
- Make sure your policies are effective and help you deal with problems
- Keep records to spot patterns and give you evidence
- When you spot a problem, deal with it, don’t put it off.
- Conduct return to work interviews every time
- Limit sick pay
- Address employees’ concerns
- Take professional advice with more serious problems to avoid legal difficulties