Sickness absence and disabilities – some key issues

Apr 10, 2023 | Time Off Work

If you have employees with disabilities, one of the issues you may be wondering about is handling sickness absences, whether you need to be doing anything differently, or whether there is anything specific that needs to be considered. Below we look at some of the common queries raised by managers dealing with absence relating to disabled colleagues.

Higher rate of short-term absences

Sometimes disabled employees have a higher rate of short-term absence than their colleagues. This obviously depends on the nature of the disability and isn’t always true, but it can be more common. The fact the absence may relate to a disability doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it if it becomes disruptive and impacts the employee’s ability to perform their job effectively. However it does mean you need to exercise caution and handle it differently.

If the employee doesn’t currently have any adjustments in place, a higher rate of short-term absence might mean you should look at implement some. Alternatively you might need to review adjustment you already have in place if these aren’t proving effective enough.

Adjustments in working hours, either a reduction or greater flexibility, can have a significant impact on short-term absence rates, and working from home more can also bring improvements.

With any employee with a very high rate of short-term absence, you might need to look at taking formal action. With a disabled employee you should be careful about any action that might be treating the absence as misconduct, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything that if the absence rate is so high it ultimately becomes a capability issue with dismissal potentially on the cards, as long as you have explored all other options such as adjustments and redeployment first.

Long term absences

Although long-term absences can be as little as a few weeks, sometimes they stretch into months. A disabled employee may be more likely to have long term absence or absences, and certainly for absences of several months, a high proportion of those will involve a disability, or will have become a disability by the later stages.

It’s sensible to agree early on in the absence, ideally as soon as it becomes clear it will be long-term, how contact will be maintained. This is a really important thing to do – remaining in regular touch with the workplace makes it much easier for someone on long-term absence to return, it reduces the psychological hurdle significantly. It also obviously allows you to ensure any support you offer remains appropriate. Agreeing contact with them will ensure it doesn’t feel imposed on them, and will help it be (and feel) supportive whilst not intrusive.

What that contact looks like in terms of logistics and frequency will depend on the employee and the nature of their condition/reason for absence, so be led by them where possible, and be flexible rather than trying to implement a standard contact policy for all long-term absences.

Occupational health can provide useful guidance on possible adjustments to enable a return when the time comes. And if it becomes clear that returning to work is unlikely, the fact the absence is related to a disability doesn’t mean you cannot dismiss. There is obviously a risk of a discrimination claim but if it is really necessary, and you can show that you have thoroughly explored any and all possible alternatives to dismissal, the risk is significantly lowered.

Trigger systems for absence management

Some organisations operate a trigger system for managing absence, with certain levels of absence triggering a meeting or a warning. There is no need to completely suspend use of a trigger system for a disabled employee, but it is likely to be considered a reasonable adjustment to change the triggers to account for a naturally higher rate of absence, and meetings triggered by the system should be focused on looking at adjustments and support.

Sick pay for disability-related sickness absence

Regardless of whether you operate statutory sick pay or have an enhanced sick pay scheme, there is no requirement to pay a disabled employee for absence over and above what you offer anyone else. You could certainly opt to do this, but it wouldn’t usually be seen as a reasonable adjustment to offer more sick pay because of a disability.

Absence for appointments

A disabled employee may need time off work for appointments relating to their disability, not directly due to not being fit for work on that day. You should accommodate these if at all possible, indeed, it is likely to be considered a reasonable adjustment to do so. It’s fine to ask if it’s possible to have them at the beginning or end of the day, or on non-working days, but this might not be achievable. There is not a requirement for absences for medical or related appointments to be paid, although if you are able to consider support with at some of these being paid, it can help enormously.

Using return to work interviews effectively

Even if you don’t use return to interviews routinely for everyone, they can be particularly useful for disabled employees. It provides an opportunity to offer support, check for patterns and trends, discuss whether adjustments in place are still suitable or need amending, and can give the employee an opportunity to highlight anything they may need or any changes that might be taking place with their condition that might affect work.

Absence with a disabled colleague may need handling more carefully, but as long as you go into decision-making with a mindset of always trying to support and enable, and with the goal of including and involving the employee in how to manage the interaction between their condition and their attendance at work, you are more likely to be able to improve any problem areas and protect the business at the same time.

If you need any further advice on key issues regarding sickness absence and disabilities, do get in touch.