Strictly Education’s Top Tips: Managing Sickness Absence

Sickness absence is nearly at its lowest level since figures were first collected 25 years ago, shown in the figures from the Office for National Statistics show that, at an average of 4.4 days per worker.

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, absence rates – and therefore costs – are likely to have risen much higher than average. Absence costs are also typically higher in the public sector.

Those too ill to work should be at home until they are well enough to return, but what should employers do when sickness absence – for whatever reason – has become so disruptive, or so lengthy, that action must be taken?


Watch Strictly Education’s short video on Managing Sickness Absence on the Education HR website.


Strictly Education’s HR website provides an easily accessible source of key HR resources created specifically for schools, academies, MATs and colleges.

The education-specific website Education HR provides access to over 1,000 downloadable resources and web pages providing compliance information, guidance and templates on a comprehensive range of HR topics. All resources are written by qualified practitioners who work within the education sector.


  1. Dig out your absence management policy

You will struggle to take any management action against individuals if you do not have a transparent, well-known policy setting out expectations for attendance, reporting procedures and the potential consequences for the employee of an unsatisfactory attendance record. If you do not issue the full policy to all employees as a matter of course, make it accessible (on the intranet or in the staff room) and ensure that the basics are understood by all employees by covering it as part of induction, with occasional reminders to all staff about absence reporting procedures.


  1. Make consistent use of return-to-work interviews

Nearly two thirds of employers in a 2007 study by Employment Review thought that return-to-work interviews had cut absence levels in their organisation; the research also showed that they were most successful in smaller organisations. Using return-to-work interviews in accordance with your policy ensures that employees are aware that their absence has been noticed. For those who are genuinely unwell it can help prevent issues escalating, for example where absence has been triggered by anxiety at work. Where the validity of the illness is more dubious, a requirement to explain absence and potentially have attendance reviewed on an ongoing basis often acts as an effective deterrent.


  1. Monitor absence levels

Your policy may provide for a ‘trigger point’ for investigating an individual’s absence pattern or duration. Having a threshold in place can be a great management tool but it will be futile if there is no monitoring of absence records. By periodically reviewing absence levels and treating employees consistently, there is a firm basis for action to be taken where necessary which focuses on the level of disruption certain absences cause, irrespective of whether or not the absence is genuine. It is also difficult for the employee to feel that they are being ‘singled out’ if you are simply following established procedure.


  1. Focus on supporting a return to work

The longer an employee is off work, the less likely it is statistically that they will ever return. Where possible, ask the employee to attend a meeting – or, whilst the coronavirus pandemic persists, hold it remotely – to look at what support could be made available which might help secure an early return on a phased basis or with altered duties. The GP should make use of the ‘fit note’ to make suggestions of this nature, however involve your Occupational Health (OH) provider where you need additional information and remember that the final decision on whether adjustments can be accommodated rests with the employer. It is a common misunderstanding that employees have to be 100% fit to return to work. Provided that the employer has assessed the situation in conjunction with the employee, there is no reason why someone cannot return before they are fully fit and, in many cases, this can have a beneficial effect on mental and physical health.


  1. Keep in touch with employees who are off sick, particularly long term

Keeping in touch serves two purposes: to provide support to the employee and to establish pragmatic details about progress and likely duration of absence. There is no reason why contact should not be by telephone, except where the employee has reasonable grounds for requesting otherwise (the obvious example being when the illness is related to stress at work where the employee may wish to minimise contact). To maintain reasonable contact with an employee is not harassment and managers should not feel unable to contact their staff. However, do avoid badgering them with work issues when they are unwell. During long-term sickness absence, regular sickness review meetings should be scheduled, with the employee present wherever possible. Keeping employees up to date about what’s happening at work, in an undemanding way, can also stop them losing touch with the workplace and becoming more anxious about returning.


  1. Make use of your occupational health services

In cases of long-term or persistent short-term absence, it is vital to the management of absence, and the defence of any later dismissal decision, that up-to-date medical information on the diagnosis, prognosis and likelihood of a return to work has been considered. With regular short-term absence, an indication of whether or not there are any underlying health conditions will impact on how you manage the situation. In all cases, OH should be able to help advise on any disabilities affecting attendance or performance in the role. Where this is the case, the legal duty to make reasonable adjustments arises and particular care must be taken to ensure that this duty is met.


  1. Look at proactive measures to improve staff wellbeing

Publicise your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) service, if you provide one, via noticeboards, intranet pages and through periodic reminders. This is a valuable benefit to employees offering access to a range of support services, often including counselling. Make sure that all staff are aware of any other staff benefit schemes offered by the school/college (or for maintained schools, via the local authority) such as childcare vouchers, discounted medical insurance or gym membership. Consider whether staff would benefit from workshops in managing stress or promoting a healthy lifestyle. Sometimes these may be available via your OH or EAP provider.


  1. Create individual solutions

You have an absence management policy and the steps you take should be applied consistently for the sake of a fair process. In practice however, every case is different and should therefore be managed based on the particular circumstances. Support for an employee to get well and to return to work can, and should, be tailored to reflect the person and the health issues involved. Don’t be afraid to talk to the employee about what would work for them; you are not bound by their suggestions, but they may have thought of relevant aspects that you haven’t considered.


  1. Consider refresher training for your line managers

Tackling unacceptable absence is part of every line manager’s job but many managers report feeling ill-equipped to deal effectively with what can be a difficult subject. Research shows that where line managers have had training in absence management, there is a decrease in sickness absence rates. Training can look at subjects such as appropriate intervention strategies for short and long-term absence, having conversations about sensitive issues, the legal framework, and how to conduct effective return-to-work and sickness review meetings.


  1. And finally, remember that dismissal for ill health capability falls within one of the potentially fair reasons for dismissal

Many managers tolerate poor attendance, even when they believe that some or all of the absence isn’t genuine. Where an employee is genuinely unwell the employer should, of course, be accommodating of their needs, but this does not mean that absence can, or should, be supported indefinitely. The impact of absence on other staff should also be considered. The additional workload and difficulty over planning can start to impact on morale, particularly if employees believe that the absent colleague is abusing the system. Follow a fair process to achieve a fair outcome.


Watch Strictly Education’s short video on Managing Sickness Absence on the Education HR website.


By Nicole Evans – HR Consultant at Strictly Education