Around 136.6 million working days are lost due to sickness or injury in the UK annually, according to the Office of National Statistics. This amounts to a cost of sickness absence in the billions of pounds to the national economy.
For employers, this averaged out to about £565 per worker in 2019, according to a survey by XpertHR.
The majority of sickness absences cases are for minor illnesses like the common cold, followed by musculoskeletal problems and mental health issues.
There is little that can be done for the minor illnesses that naturally arise each year. But employers can and should have procedures in place to deal with potential cases of sickness absence that can turn out to be long term.
Extended time off of work due to sickness can have a great effect on both the employer and their employees.
Managing sickness absence in the workplace
Effectively managing sickness absence is an indication of an employer who cares for their workforce. It does take time, expertise, and resources. But the cost of poor management of sickness absence far outweighs these factors.
The costs associated with sickness absence include:
Employing replacement staff
Training up existing employees or temporary staff to cover the absence
Low staff morale
Employers may also have to pay compensation and tribunal costs, if an employee is made sick due to their work.
Keeping records and monitoring sickness absence trends can help to identify the causes of sick days. This may include risks within the workplace that need to be risk assessed and controlled.
Sickness absence policy
Employers must have a policy in place that addresses sickness absence. This policy must be made available to all employees and should set out the steps the employer will take should an employee need to take time off work due to sickness.
The policy should be written using input from all levels of the organisation. Where there is a workplace union, a union representative should also be included in the process.
Sickness absence trigger points should be factored into the policy.
What is a sickness absence trigger point? This is when an employer becomes concerned about an employee due to their sickness absence.
So, a policy should state what the potential sickness absence trigger points are, and what should be done when they occur.
This could be a call made to the employee by their line manager to ascertain the reasons for sickness absence for a few days off sick. It also could involve arranging a formal meeting with an employee and gaining medical advice for long term sickness absence.
In all cases employers must treat employees with fairness and dignity.
What employers must do to assist employees while on sick leave
What they must have in place, such as adequate policies and procedures
What they cannot do while an employee is on sick leave
What they must do so that the employee can return back to work
When compiling a sickness absence policy, it is a good idea to refer to each of these documents to ensure that all points are considered. Failure to comply could lead to legal claims, damage to the employer’s reputation, and fines.
The Equality Act and Employers Rights Act provide guidance in situations where there may be the need for dismissal for sickness absence.
An employee can be dismissed due to long term sickness absence if it can be concluded via medical records that they can no longer do their job.
A disciplinary process must be followed, which must include adequate communication, support, and efforts shown by the employer to assist the employee in returning to work, if applicable.
Guidance on redundancy and sickness absence can also be found in the Employment Rights Act.
Where employers have trouble navigating through the relevant legislation, they should consider getting advice from a qualified legal professional.
How to calculate sickness absence percentage
To calculate sickness absence simply:
Add up the total number of days/hours lost due to them being on sick leave
Add up the total number of days/hours that the employee should have worked
Divide the number of days/hours lost by the number of days/hours the employee should have worked
Multiply the result by 100
This will leave you with the percentage of sickness absence.
How to reduce sickness absence in the workplace?
Getting health and safety right is a key to reducing sickness absence.
Keyways to do this are through:
Employers should conduct risk assessments for work activities to identify risks and provide an opportunity to implement control measures.
Providing adequate training to employees will ensure that they are competent and can do their jobs safely without causing injury to themselves or their colleagues.
Channels for communication should be in place so that employees can speak without feeling intimidated if they have a health condition that may require workplace adaptations.
Can employers ask about sickness absence?
No. Section 60 (Enquiries about disabilities and health) of the Equality Act 2010, states that an employer cannot ask a potential employee about their health status before offering them a job. This includes periods of sickness absence.
Once a formal job offer has been made an employer can then ask about health conditions and time taken off as sick but within reason.
How to deal with sick employees
Being unwell impacts an employee’s work and personal life. So, it is important to keep this in mind when dealing with sick employees.
Employers should always approach poor health and the need for time off with empathy, consideration, and caution.
Employers should understand that the individual may be in pain, suffering, or embarrassed about being off from work. Employees should be made to feel comfortable discussing their sickness with their employer.
Following the appropriate guidance, using caution, and applying an unbiased approach will ensure sickness absence is handled smoothly and legally.
What is classed as long-term sick?
Being off from work for a period of four weeks or more is classed as long-term sick leave. The four weeks do not have to be continuous.
Periods of sick leave that last at least four days and are up to eight weeks apart can be grouped together to make up the four weeks or more.
Can an employer ask for proof of sickness?
If sickness absence is more than seven consecutive seven days in a row (including non-working days – weekends and bank holidays), an employee will need to provide proof to their employer.
A fit note given to them by their doctor can be submitted as proof. If they become ill either before or during a period of annual leave, they can take that time off as sick leave.
Can an employer contact employee off sick?
Yes, employers can contact employees while they are off sick, but the contact should take care when doing so.
Contacting an employee to have an informal chat about their recovery or any requirements for their return to work is acceptable. But this should be infrequent and based on practical need. Contact with an ill employee must be arranged beforehand at a time that the employee is comfortable with.
Sickness absence is a matter to take seriously. Getting it wrong can lead to undue stress to employees and claims made against employers.
Therefore, policies and procedures must be in place, along with adequate training for those who have a responsibility in managing workers.