There are three separate strands to absenteeism:

  1. • authorised and planned for, such as holiday, maternity or paternity leave (see article 61)
  2. • unplanned but genuine absence, such as sickness
  3. • unauthorised or suspect absence, which can also include lateness.

The latest research from the CIPD and Simply Health, published in November 2016, reveals that the number of days the average UK worker takes off sick each year has fallen to 6.3 days, the lowest for seven years. Public sector absenteeism stands at 8.6 days per employee per year, while in the private sector it stands at 5.2 days per employee per year. 

Regardless of sector, absence levels tend to increase with the size of organisation. The average cost of absence per employee per year dropped slightly from the previous year to £522.

Over a quarter of the organisations surveyed reported that managing absence is now one of the top three people management priorities – number one in the public sector. Line managers take primary responsibility for managing short-term absence (57% in the private sector and 72% in the public sector). 

The most common way of dealing with both short and long-term absence remains the return-to-work interview. For short-term absence the next most common ways of managing absence are trigger mechanisms to review attendance and leave for family circumstances. For long-term absence the second and third most common ways of managing absence are the involvement of occupational health and giving sickness absence information to line managers. 

Although more organisations are giving line managers primary responsibility for managing absence, fewer employers than last year said they are training managers in absence-handling, and there has also been a decrease in the proportion of organisations providing tailored support for line managers.

Minor illnesses remain the top short-term cause of absence, with stress and musculoskeletal injuries taking joint second place, and back pain in third place. 

Causes of stress

Stress is the most common cause of long-term absence (29%), followed by acute conditions (23%). The public and non-profit sectors were more likely to report stress and mental ill-health as a cause of long-term absence than the private sector. 

As in previous years the most common cause of stress is workload, which was cited by 55% of respondents, down from 56% in 2015. Non-work factors, such as relationships and family issues were cited by 33% of respondents while management style as a causation of stress was in third place at 32%, down from 39% in 2013. Considerable organisation change/restructuring as a cause of stress went up to 26% from 20% in 2015.

Article 138 gives details of the Health and Safety Authority’s action plan for work-related stress.

Persistent genuine absence

In the case of persistent unplanned but genuine absence, a meeting should be held with the employee to discover the reason behind the absences. For example, an employee may have personal problems, such as caring responsibilities, which can be overcome by forms of flexible working such as split shifts or working from home. It is important to remember that the employee might be reluctant to divulge problems for fear it will affect the employer’s attitude towards them so it should always be stated that the intention behind these meetings is to help.

Long-term absence

In cases of long-term absence, initiating disciplinary proceedings and even dismissal may be fair – but only after other options have been exhausted. It is also important to remember that if an employer has potentially contributed to illness, then the organisation may be liable (see article 137). 

After a lengthy absence it may be necessary to adopt a reintroduction policy such as a phased return to ease the employee back into the workplace. It is also important to note that the Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for an employer to treat a person less favourably because of a reason relating to their disability (which may include illness), without a justifiable reason (see article 68 onwards).

Fit note

In April 2010, for people who are on sick leave for more than seven days, the ‘sick note’ was replaced by the ‘fit note’. As with the sick note, The Statement of Fitness to Work (to give the ‘fit note’ its proper title) is given by GPs to patients. 

The fit note may say that an employee is unfit for work but it could also say that an employee is fit for work if certain steps are taken by the employer to support the employee. This might mean discussing:

• a phased return to work altered hours

• amended duties 

• workplace adaptations.

The fit note can also provide general details of the functional effect of the individual’s condition. For example, under the sick note scheme an employee with an injury might be slow to return to work because he or she feared aggravating it. Under the fit note an adaptation which could override the fear might be suggested, e.g. a parking space near the office to reduce walking. (See article 132.)

Holidays and sick leave

The law around holidays and sick leave continues to be very technical so seeking legal advice is recommended. In summary: the EU’s Working Time Directive guarantees workers four weeks’ holiday a year. This is time for rest and recuperation, so employees who are on long-term sick leave are entitled to take four weeks’ paid statutory holiday leave while on sick leave. If being sick prevents them from taking their holiday, then they are entitled to carry it across to the next holiday year. If falling sick prevents a worker from taking annual leave then they must be allowed to take that leave later – again, that can be in a new holiday year. The European Court of Justice has also said that when a worker falls sick during their holiday, they are entitled to that period of leave at a later time.

The Court of Appeal has said that a request from someone who has been on long-term sick leave to carry over holiday leave to the next year must be made if there is an opportunity for the employee to do so. Therefore, someone who has been continually absent for more than a year must have their holiday leave rolled over automatically because they do not have the opportunity to make the request. 

However, someone who has returned to work, even in a reduced capacity would have the opportunity to make the request and, therefore, should do so.

Suspect absences

You should include details about how you discipline suspect absence in your disciplinary policy. It is important to make sure you have supporting evidence, such as proof of the employee engaging in an activity they are supposedly too ill to accomplish. 

You might also monitor the absences to see if any trends emerge, e.g. Mondays, Fridays or sunny days. In the latter case, you should try to solve the problem proactively, for example take advantage of the good weather by holding a team meeting in a local park or provide outdoor furniture as an alternative to meeting over the water cooler.

Persistent lateness may be tackled by flexible working provisions, such as allowing the employee to start and finish earlier or later. If you introduce flexible working it is important to ensure that line managers are signed up to these provisions and are comfortable working with them, otherwise you can find yourself with a clash between the organisation’s provisions and line managers’ demands.