Sickness absence is at its lowest ever level in the UK, but finding the best way to manage unplanned absences is tricky.

Periods of employee absence are inevitable, but they can be disruptive and expensive, especially for small businesses where each individual makes up a significant proportion of the entire workforce.

Sickness absence may be at its lowest ever level in the UK, but it’s true to say that finding a fair and appropriate way to manage unplanned absences is tricky.

The vast majority of employees want to come to work and do a good job. People don’t fall ill on purpose and they don’t like to call in sick. In fact, in the absence of appropriate support staff are more likely to struggle into work, delaying their recovery and spreading their illness to others.

So what’s the best way to approach and manage sickness absence?

Have a Sickness Absence Policy

As with most things in HR, managing staff absence effectively begins with a policy.

Your sickness absence policy should:

  • make it a contractual requirement for staff to notify you of their absence
  • let employees know who they should report their absence to
  • the method of communication you prefer them to use
  • the time you expect them to have notified you by
  • communicate the level of absence the business considers unacceptable
  • set out the trigger points at which your formal absence management process will begin.

A comprehensive policy helps your staff to understand what is expected of them in terms of reporting absence and how their absence will be managed. It also helps you to remain consistent in your approach.

Consider the bigger picture

How much do you know about the general state of employee well-being in the organisation? Is the sickness absence unavoidable or are there aspects of the job that could be having an impact?

Well-being audits and employee focus groups are a great way to discover what may be making people feel less than engaged with their jobs.

Record absence correctly and Make good use of data

A good HR software system will contain and generate a wealth of data that you can use to analyse absences. It will help you look at sickness by everything from frequency per employee and age to specific job role, department or even time of year.

Many companies allow sickness absence to be paid as annual leave. This is a practice worth reconsidering as it disguises absence patterns and results in them being discounted which may be unhelpful should attendance become an issue.

Tackle the root causes

Your HR system may uncover some interesting trends. If you are seeing an exceptionally high rate of short term absence this could point to: an issue with management style or an issue within the team, employees are struggling with workloads or staff are not getting the support they need.

If you can pinpoint what’s going on underneath the surface, you can put measures in place to prevent problems arising, help people cope and support them appropriately when needed.

Have a consistent, fair, reasonable and professional approach

Balancing fairness, consistency, reasonableness and remaining professional at all times can be a challenge when handling absence issues. Your policy will help with this as your expectations are clearly laid out.

Train managers

Line managers are often in the front line when it comes to dealing with absence, but many are poorly equipped to do so. Make sure your line managers understand exactly how your processes and procedures for reporting and managing sickness work, to ensure that a consistent approach is being taken across the business.

Take a pro-active approach to long term absence

It can be extremely daunting for a manager to talk to a member of staff who has a serious or long-term illness. They may be worried that someone will get upset and they won’t know how to deal with it, or that the conversation could turn confrontational. Make sure managers are clear about where the line is between an issue they can deal with themselves, and a situation that needs to be referred to HR. Ensure they know about the range of support the business can offer. Supporting people and facilitating a carefully managed return to work is key at a time when organisations can’t afford to lose talented people.

If you are feeling like you need some advice about absence or sickness in your company or feel a little out of your depth with an attendance issue, we can help.

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