Dealing with issues relating to staff absence has been a notable theme of recent calls to the MDDUS HR and employment advice line.
This chimes with official figures that show the sickness absence rate in the UK in 2021 rose to 2.2. per cent – the highest it’s been since 2010. It is not surprising to find that Covid accounted for almost a quarter of all occurrences of sickness absence in 2021. Work-related stress was also a factor, accounting for 32.5 million sick days.
Absences can be both short and long term with a slight difference in managing each category.
Short term absence
Short term absences tend to be for a week or less, with various odd days off. Reasons are usually for more minor ailments such as colds, toothache, migraines etc.
Short term absence is often treated as a 'conduct' issue, but it is worth remembering that repeated short term absences may also indicate a more general health problem that requires further medical investigation. It could be a sign that the employee feels stressed at work, is not coping with the job, or is going through some personal issues at home.
Absences for less than seven days can be self-certified. After seven days, irrespective of the employee’s working pattern, a fit note needs to be submitted. Failure to submit a fit note may lead to formal action being taken and possible withholding of sick pay.
Unplanned short term absences can be disruptive for the practice and, if frequent, can cause issues amongst colleagues. It can be useful for the practice to have an absence reporting policy outlining how employees are to communicate their absence, and the role of return-to-work meetings.
Return to work meetings
These meetings are a useful forum to discuss relevant issues, including any patterns of absence and/or absence frequency. The employee can also be advised that their absence will be monitored. These meetings are informal, so there is no right to be accompanied but notes should be taken.
Where applicable, the employee should be informally warned that their attendance record is not acceptable and needs to improve and that failure to do so may result in formal disciplinary procedures being invoked.
In cases where it is necessary to seek further medical information, the employee should be asked for their consent to write to their GP or consultant. The employee has the right to refuse such a request, but this means that any future decisions would be based on the information available.
Long term absence
There is no official definition in employment law, but absences longer than four weeks tend to be classed as long-term. They usually relate to one specific medical condition, such as depression, recovering from an operation or work-related stress. Long term absence is usually treated as a 'capability' issue.
After four weeks, the next step would be to seek an occupational health or GP report to find out more information about the employee’s condition. A meeting can then be set up to discuss ways to support their return to work. If the employee is off with work-related stress, we would advise taking this step after two weeks.
The general guidance when dealing with long term absence is:
- keep in regular contact. Ensure the employee is kept up to date with relevant work developments. For example, if a temporary employee is recruited to cover the work in the short term, ensure the employee knows this and does not worry that their job is no longer there for them.
- get regular updates on the employee’s condition and any changes
- obtain medical reports from the employee’s GP or specialist
- have meetings to discuss medical reports and how the employee can be helped to return to work
- develop a phased return to work plan where applicable.
A phased return can be a useful way to help the employee settle back into the workplace. This may involve:
- reduced hours
- change of days
- change of work duties.
This can be phased over a four to six-week period. There is no obligation to pay the employee their full salary during this time, only for the hours they are working, but sick pay can be given for the hours they are not working.
If there is no sign of the employee returning to work, then the practice is not obliged to hold the role open indefinitely. There is no set timeframe when this should be considered but dismissal on the ground of capability should be a last resort.
Before any decision is taken, you should ensure that you have the latest medical information on the employee’s condition and that there is no sign of a return date. You should have considered all other alternatives and held meetings with the employee to discuss this – the last one being a formal meeting where the employee has the right to be accompanied.
Employees will be due their notice pay and any accrued holiday pay and should be given the right to appeal the decision.
With both short term and long term absence, practices should be aware that if the employee’s condition is classed as a disability, the practice will have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate this.