Do you get a headache from managing employee sickness?

According to the 2011 CBI Absence Survey, the annual cost of absence to the UK economy is £17 billion. It is also estimated that UK workers take an average of 6.5 days off for unauthorised absence each year. So what can you do to manage and reduce sickness in your workplace?

Sickness can be a difficult issue to manage. While sick employees need to be treated fairly, you want to ensure that ‘sickness’ is not being used as cover for unauthorised absence. Taking disciplinary action against sick employees presents particular legal risks. You also need to ensure that you respect employees’ entitlement to statutory sick pay (SSP) or other contractual sick pay.

Well thought out sickness policies can help reduce absence, by discouraging employees from taking ‘sick’ days as a form of extra holiday. For example, the policy might state that you require employees to phone in sick rather than taking the easier approach of sending an email. You might also ask to have a ‘return to work’ meeting with them on their return, and require completion of a self-certification sick note explaining the reason for their absence.

Monitoring patterns of sickness absence, such as high levels of sick leave on a Friday or Monday can raise your suspicions, and help you deal with any problems.

Reviewing the reasons for sickness can also be important. For example, complaints of back ache may reveal genuine problems with workstations or work practices that you should address as part of your health and safety responsibilities.

Unless you have clear proof, taking disciplinary action against an employee you suspect of abusing sick leave requires care.

Repeated absence can be grounds for disciplinary action or even dismissal where an employee’s frequent sick leave affects their ability to do their job. However, you could face a claim of unfair discrimination if an employee’s long-term illness amounts to a disability. Do not take action against an employee whose illness is pregnancy-related.

Almost all employees are entitled to SSP if they are unable to work for more than a few sick days in a row because of illness. Employees on very low earnings do not qualify.

SSP is payable at a flat rate for up to 28 weeks in any period of sickness. You may be able to reclaim part or all of their SSP payments from HM Revenue & Customs, depending on the amount of SSP paid. SSP establishes a minimum level of sick pay, but your employees’ employment contracts can offer a more generous level of contractual sick pay.

If you would like guidance and support to help deal with specific people issues, allowing you to keep your business on track, please contact HR Service Centre on 0845 606 9640 or e-mail

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