How to manage sick leave and employee absence

sick_leaveIn today’s workplace, it often arises that employees feel under pressure to return to work before they are fully recovered from sickness. Job insecurity has left the Scottish and wider UK workforce scared to take time off in the first place, while the average number of sick days taken has fallen every year since the 2008 recession. Heavy workloads, the financial implications of being off sick and fear of victimisation from managers all contribute to an anti-absence culture that seems to be increasing all the time.

Sick leave fears are counterproductive

The result is completely counterproductive, as when people come back to work without having recovered properly, their performance is naturally affected, which leads to further issues with their department and colleagues. In some cases, the employee may become sick again and the whole stressful process of having to be absent from work starts afresh.

All of these issues often stem from bad management. The more support a responsible employer gives to people who are genuinely off sick, the quicker they will recover and return to work as a productive employee.

Managing absence

The obvious message is that employers need to manage sick leave in a way that distinguishes absences in different circumstances – for examples, those which are due to a simple common cold, versus a longer term absence. These need to be handled differently and with considerations such as the level of support required for the employee and the internal needs for the business. It’s therefore good to have a policy already in place for dealing with absences.

Ensure you know why staff are off work, when they will come back and how you will deal with:

  • Short-term sickness absence which lasts less than a week
  • Repeated short-term sickness absences which may follow a pattern
  • Long-term sickness absence lasting several weeks or more
  • Unauthorised absence for other reasons

Keeping in touch

Regular communication is considered to be essential in helping employees return to work from sick leave. However, some employees – depending on the nature of their absence – may feel they are being pressured to come back to work too early. On the flip side, some employees may feel isolated and undervalued if they are not contacted. The bottom line is that this needs to be handled sensitively.

Workplace adjustments

As part of any communication with the employee, you may need to undertake any workplace adjustments that will aid the employees return to work. If the adjustments cannot be made, a suitable alternative position may be discussed.

If your employee is or becomes disabled you are legally required under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments to enable the employee to continue working. Not all disabled employees will need permanent adjustments to keep working. But if an individual does need help you need to make sure you reasonably do all that you can to modify their job. Workplace adjustments can help to retain valuable skills within your business and ultimately remove any obstacles for a return to work.

Professional advice and treatment

There will be some circumstances where you and your employee may need professional advice or access to support and treatment before a return to work is possible. For example, an occupational therapist will be able to assist you with return to work programmes or workplace adaptations. Many employers offer employee assistance programmes, which can offer a variety of support to the employee. In addition, many employers’ offer private medical insurance which can speed up any treatments the employee may require.

A return to work plan

Ensure you have prepared a return to work plan. Discussing it too soon may put pressure on the employee but leaving it too late may mean the employee loses confidence in being able to return. Usually the best time to prepare a plan is 3 to 4 weeks into an absence. In cases of post-operative convalescence there may be clear physical milestones in the healing process that will influence the plan.

The plan should be tailored to the individual and might include:

  • The goal of the plan
  • The time period of the plan
  • Information about alternative working arrangements
  • Information about changes to terms and conditions
  • What checks will be made to make sure the plan is put into practice
  • Dates when the plan will be reviewed

Before implementing the plan, make sure the employee is happy with what has been put in place and that advice given by professionals, such as the individual’s GP or occupational health adviser, has been taken into account.

In any business, it’s fair to say that people are going to be off sick from time to time. Most employees feel bad about letting down their colleagues and most employers are reasonably sympathetic about their staff’s welfare. Being proactive is essential. The sooner action is taken, the better the chances are of an employee making a full and speedy return to work.


Contributed by Colin McAndrew of COL HR Ltd and our HR expert interview.

Images by Alvaro Canivell and VeronicaTherese, used under Creative Comms licence.