If you employ people, it is highly likely that at some point one or more your staff will be absent from work due to sickness. According to the Office of National Statistics’ most recent survey, 141.4 million working days were lost in the UK. That’s 4.4 days per worker. Click here for survey results. 
This can be challenging for a business but it is important that you have clear policies and processes drawn up for such events and manage each situation proactively and fairly. Below, we give you the tools and techniques you need to navigate successfully through the sickness minefield. 
Your sickness absence policy 
If you do not have a written sickness absence policy, please write one as a priority. In it you should include the following: 
• Your expected standards for attendance and reporting requirements 
• How much company sick pay, if any, (in terms of maximum days’ absence and the percentage of salary) you will pay before statutory sick pay kicks in 
• What evidence you require to demonstrate incapacity 
• The company process for managing absences (more of the detail below) 
Make sure that all staff have a copy of your policy and that they fully understand it. 
What happens when a colleague phones in sick? 
Make sure your managers understand your sickness policy and are trained to deal with these situations. When a colleague calls in sick, they should ask the reason for absence, when the employee is likely to return to work and confirm contact details. It’s important that everyone follows a consistent approach so that even if the employee does not speak to their manager, the right messages are given on both sides. 
Your policy should outline what evidence of incapacity you require. Government guidelines allow staff to self-certify for 7 days or less but will need a doctor’s certificate, known as a ‘fit note’ for any longer absences. Click here for more details
What should you do whilst an employee is off sick? 
When you’re employee is off sick, it’s important to stay in contact with them. Do make sure your communication is proportionate to their role and the nature of their condition. You could, for example, agree a weekly call with someone who is on long-term sick leave (more than 4 weeks) or maybe a short daily call with someone who will only be away for a few days. 
It is important that you are not overly intrusive and do not harass or distress an employee during sickness absence. 
It is essential that you keep records of all calls, messages, correspondence or meetings you have with an employee while off sick. Make sure that you follow up calls or meetings with letters summarising your discussion and any agreed next steps. 
How to manage long-term sickness 
An employee who is off for more than 4 weeks with a severe illness or condition is always a major challenge for a small business. Very often, you will struggle to cover that person’s workload and managing this type of absence needs to be managed very carefully. 
The first thing to do when an employee is going to be absent for more than four weeks is to set up a ‘Stage 1’ meeting with them. Try to make this as easy on your employee as possible, offering to visit them at home if necessary. Your aims are to better understand the condition and how it affects your employee’s ability to work and whether reasonable adjustments could be made in the workplace to remove barriers to a return to work. You may also want to refer them for an Occupational Health Assessment or permission to contact their GP (This will require their consent). This option should be documented in your sickness absence policy. 
As we advise above, take notes of all meetings and summarise those discussions and any actions in a follow-up letter. 
If the employee remains absent for another month you should arrange a ‘Stage 2’ meeting with them to gauge progress, review actions taken and any change to likely return dates. Again the discussion and any actions should be clearly documented. 
During the absence you may need to discuss if it is feasible for an employee to change to a part-time or flexible working structure, moving to a less stressful or physical role and how that could impact their ability to return. 
As a last resort, and having exhausted all avenues to help an employee return to work, you may invite them to a final meeting to advise of dismissal on health grounds. We would advise that you always seek advice from an HR expert before taking this final step. 
How to manage an employee’s return to work 
You should always investigate the reasons for absence by holding a return to work interview with your employee. This also allows you the opportunity to ensure they fully understand your sickness absence policy and whether any further actions need to be taken. As always, keep a record of this meeting. 
Following a long-term sickness absence, make sure that you make the employee feel welcome when they return. You may need to plan a phased return with shorter hours if necessary and update them on any changes that have happened in your business that they may not be aware of. 
Remember that a person is disabled for discrimination law purposes if they have a PHYSICAL OR MENTAL impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. That means you are subject to the POSTIVE DUTY to consider and make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees. In short, you should consider any reasonable adjustments to enable the individual to return to work. If you have followed the steps as laid out in our long-term sickness advice, you should already have done this. 
Managing multiple incidents of sickness absence 
You will need a formal procedure for managing any member of staff who has a high frequency of sickness absence. Your sickness absence policy should define what these ‘trigger points’ are, typically being a certain number of incidents in a 12 month period or single absences of more than a maximum number of days. 
Keep a record of every individual’s sickness absences and look for any patterns (a Friday or a Monday, occurrences after a stressful event or monthly deadlines and so on). Invite your employee to a meeting and outline the facts of their absences clearly. You may ask factual questions such as ‘I have noticed that you have been off sick for five Mondays in the last three months. Could you help me understand why that may be?’ 
External and internal factors can have an influence on behaviour including: 
• Stress through workload or deadlines 
• Personal or family issues 
• Bullying or harassment 
• Anxiety about organisational change 
• Difficult relationships with colleagues or managers 
• Lack of training, clear targets, resources 
If you do identify a workplace issue, address it urgently so you can ensure your employee is happy in the workplace. If you identify a more personal issue you will need to provide the appropriate level of support to help them feel able to work. If you have access to a workplace counselling service, it can be a very effective way of doing that. 
If absences persist, you may ask for a medical report (with your employee’s consent) to assess their health situation. 
Ultimately your sickness absence policy should contain guidelines that clarify the level of sickness absence that could lead to dismissal. 
Managing staff sickness has a measurable impact on your business and can be challenging but if you follow our advice and ensure every manager in your business understands how to manage sickness, you will be able to control it more effectively. 
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