Absence due to illness

All employees are ill from time to time. Absence through illness, whether it is frequent days off or long-term illness, can create serious operational problems for employers and represents a huge cost to businesses.

Employees need to know what will happen to them when they take sick leave and how they will be paid. Employers are required to provide employees with these details, which should be included in the contract of employment or in the staff handbook. Employees also need to know what they are required to do if they are off sick:

  • who should be notified and when;
  • when is a self-certificate or doctor’s certificate required.

Whilst unfortunately sickness is a fact of life, there are a number of ways in which the effects of it can be minimised if these situations are managed carefully and at an early stage. Each case should be dealt with individually and sympathetically, taking all of the circumstances into account. Medical advice should be sought and consideration given to making special arrangements to assist employees who have become disabled. Your aim should be to help the employee return to work. Only if this is not possible should you consider dismissal. It is possible to dismiss an employee fairly for absence through sickness but only if you have followed a fair procedure.

You should call the ABDO HR Service Advice Line for assistance if this is the route you wish to take.

Notifying and recording absence

All employees should be required to notify their supervisor/manager at the earliest opportunity on the first day of absence. The procedure for notifying absences should be widely communicated. Unless there is good reason, failure to notify absence in accordance with the procedure should be regarded as a breach of company rules and should be dealt with according to the normal discipline procedure.  See Discipline Section. An employee, who is absent due to illness for any period up to seven days, should be required to submit an Illness Self Certificate. For a suitable form, please see Illness Self Certificate. After seven days (including non working days) a doctor’s certificate is required.

All absences should be recorded. Use the following link for a suitable absence record Absence Record. Using one form only for recording all forms of absence enables an overview of an employee’s attendance record to be obtained quickly. Establish a procedure for line managers to inform the person responsible for keeping these records.

Keep details of the illness separate from the record of the dates of absence. Access to sickness and accident records should be limited to those managers who require the information to carry out their management role.

By maintaining accurate records, if a problem arises, you will be able to identify patterns in absence and build up evidence to present to the individual to support any action which may be necessary. You will also be able to determine when Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) and/or company sick pay have been exhausted, so that the correct adjustment to salary can be made.

Managing long term absence

During the initial stages of the absence you should establish:

  • The nature of the illness;
  • The anticipated length of absence. Some common operations have a predictable recuperation period, so you can manage staffing levels accordingly by perhaps recruiting a temporary employee;
  • Whether the employee is expected to make a full recovery.

In long term absence cases, it is important that regular contact is made with the absent employee in order to review their progress. The employee should keep you informed of any developments in his/her treatment and recovery. Maintaining regular contact will not only reassure the absentee, but will prevent the situation from drifting. The absentee should feel that the Company is sympathetic to their situation but also monitoring it closely.

Notify the employee when there is any change to his/her salary (e.g. when Company sick pay is exhausted and the employee is about to receive SSP only).

Arrange to meet with the employee to discuss the situation informally. This can be on company premises, if the employee is fit enough to attend, or at the employee’s home, if the employee agrees to a home visit. If the problem is not resolved and it looks as though the absence will continue, with no indication of a likely return date, you should inform the employee that his/her absence is under review and that you will need to obtain a medical report. The timing of this will depend on individual circumstances, including the size of the company and the importance of the absentee to the business.

A medical report can be obtained from the employee’s GP or consultant or from the Company’s medical adviser. If you wish to approach the employee’s own doctor or consultant, you must obtain the employee’s informed consent before you ask for the medical report. This is a requirement of the Access to Medical Records Act 1988. Provide your employee with a summary of his/her rights under the Act and a consent form to sign. Use the following link for an Explanatory Note to Employee and an Authorisation for Disclosure of Medical Information Relevant to Employment.

When you write to the doctor, enclose a copy of your employee’s signed authorisation. Give the doctor information about the nature of your employee’s job, and why the medical report is needed. For a suitable letter, please see Letter to doctor requesting medical report.

If your employee refuses to consent to a medical report, he/she should be told that any decision you take about his/her continued employment will have to be taken on the strength of the information you have available and that could result in the termination of his/her employment.

When you have obtained the medical report, consider all the possible issues:

  • What is your employee’s current state of health? When is he/she likely to return to work? Will he/she be limited in what he/she can do?
  • How long can the business manage without him/her?
  • Can you cover the absence by using other staff, a temp for example?
  • If you cannot wait for his/her return, or he/she is not going to be able to the same job, can you offer an alternative role?
  • Was the illness caused by conditions at work? If so, can you improve them or offer a transfer to a different department/environment?
  • Would your employee benefit from a phased return to work (perhaps working reduced hours at first, gradually building up to full time?)
  • What is your employee’s past sick record and length of service?
  • Have you created any precedents with other long term absentees?
  • Does your employee have a contractual entitlement to company sick pay or permanent health insurance?
  • Has your employee become disabled? The Disability Discrimination Act defines disability as a physical or mental impairment which is:
    • long term (i.e. longer than 12 months) or recurring;
    • substantial;
    • affects day-to-day activities.

It should be noted that employees who are diagnosed with HIV, cancer or multiple sclerosis are classed as disabled from the date of diagnosis, whether or not they are showing symptoms which would affect their day to day activities.

If your employee has become disabled, you must consider what reasonable adjustments you could make to facilitate a return to work.

The medical report with its perceived implications should be fully discussed with the employee before any decision or action is taken. This meeting should be conducted in the same way as a disciplinary meeting.

Ill health is a potentially fair reason for dismissal, if it relates to the capability of the employee to do the work he/she was employed to do. If it is decided to dismiss the employee or to take action short of dismissal (such as demotion), the statutory dismissal procedure, as set out in the Dispute Resolution Regulations, must be followed.

You must:

  • Set out in writing the circumstances which have resulted in you considering dismissal or action short of dismissal;
  • Send a copy of this statement to the employee and invite him/her to a meeting to discuss the issues;
  • Allow the employee time to consider his/her response;
  • Hold a meeting with the employee to discuss the issues and the proposed course of action;
  • Allow the employee to be accompanied at the meeting by a work colleague or trade union representative (if it is not practicable for the employee or his/her chosen representative to attend the meeting, arrange an alternative time for the meeting);
  • Inform the employee of the decision to dismiss or to take action short of dismissal and of his/her right to appeal and confirm this in writing.

If the employee appeals, hold an appeal hearing at which a more senior manager reviews the decision and confirm the outcome of the appeal in writing.

Employers should note that if an employee is dismissed and is then re-employed or re-instated on appeal, his/her continuity of employment is preserved.

In the event of a claim to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal, it is essential that you are able to demonstrate that you have followed a fair procedure, and that the dismissal was reasonable in the circumstances.

The following checklist constitutes a fair procedure:

  • Investigate thoroughly;
  • Consult the employee;
  • Seek expert advice (medical);
  • Explain (“warn” of ) the outcome if there is no improvement;
  • Consider whether there is any solution other than dismissal;
  • Follow the statutory dismissal procedure.

When you are dealing with long term absence you would be advised to discuss the situation fully with the ABDO HR Service Advice Line .

Persistent short term absence

Recording absences (even short term ones) and monitoring patterns of absence will indicate those individuals whose absence levels are significantly higher than others.

A certain amount of short term sickness is to be expected in all organisations. The difficulty is knowing whether it is genuine and has an underlying cause (such as general ill health, working conditions, stress or domestic problems) or is a convenient way of extending leisure time.

Faced with a number of seemingly unconnected absences, it is often difficult for an employer to make a judgement about the individual concerned. The best approach is therefore to assume that the illnesses are genuine and carry out a proper investigation before deciding how to deal with the employee. On this assumption, the investigation should not be disciplinary in nature but should be carried out with sympathy, tact and understanding. It may be necessary to obtain a medical report, as you would for long term absentees, to determine if there is an underlying health problem or disability. The outcome of your investigation and any medical report will indicate how to proceed.

Where there is an underlying health problem or disability, you will need to consider all of the issues, questions and alternative solutions arising from the prognosis, as you would with a long term absentee. You may be able to dismiss the employee fairly but only if you have followed a fair procedure.

When you are dealing with absenteeism or considering a dismissal for this reason, you should call the ABDO HR Service Advice Line for advice.

Malingering

Where, after proper investigation, an employee is found to be malingering and fraudulently claiming to be ill, this will constitute misconduct. In such cases the normal discipline procedure should be followed. For detailed guidance on discipline, please see Discipline Section.