A step-by-step guide to managing repeated employee absence

With the cost of sick leave absence escalating, Neil Atkinson discusses how to address the problem in six steps.

Repeated sickness absence is a problem in any business, but small businesses are particularly affected. The annual cost of sickness absence has climbed to almost £29 billion for UK organisations, according to a study published recently by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD).

One of the key issues of repeated patterns of employee absence due to ill health is the impact on productivity across the whole workforce. By its very nature, the size of a small business does not allow the work to be easily taken on by other members of staff. Morale may also suffer when co-workers are forced to pick up the slack for an absent employee.

It is therefore crucial that once a protracted pattern of repeated ‘sickness’ is identified, small business owners must take steps to tackle it. Here are some pointers you can adopt in your organisation to help manage repeated employee absence or when sickness levels are a cause for concern.

Step 1

Chart the pattern of an employee’s sick leave. Does it tend to occur at the start of a week/ end of a week? Does it coincide with significant events, such as a payday/ birthday/ sporting event? Does the employee tend to go on sick leave on the same day(s) during the week?

Step 2

Hold a Return to Work meeting after each absence to establish the reason for their absence and if there is anything in their work or private life that may be a contributing factor. A Return to Work meeting allows you to talk privately about the pattern, reasons and impact on the business. Ask whether they see a pattern; ask if there is anything you can help with/ offer support on. There is a possibility that there may be an underlying medical condition, and the employer may wish to obtain the employee’s permission to access a medical report which should provide further information.

Ask if there is a reason for the pattern, and explain the impact of the absences, such as co-workers being forced to take on additional duties to cover their work. The employee may not be aware that their sickness absence is causing so many problems for the business. You should discuss the reasons for their absences and listen to what they have to say. You could ask them to submit to an occupational health assessment for you to gain qualified medical advice on the situation.

Ask about their work-life balance. There may be a real and legitimate reason why the employee is taking the time off, such as a spouse being unwell. This may well be the opportunity they need to open up and tell you what it is they are hiding.  

Step 3

Employers should ensure that they have in place a clearly-worded sickness absence policy, including rules on notification, required evidence, payment of sick pay and return-to-work interviews.

If an employee’s contract does not provide for them to be paid whilst off sick then they are entitled to statutory sick pay from the fourth day of sickness absence for a period of up to 28 weeks (after which they need to claim incapacity benefit).

An employer is entitled to seek information from an employee about their sickness and require them to attend meetings (if they are well enough to do so).

Step 4

Discuss possible accommodations. If an employee has a disability, the employer should consider whether there are any ‘reasonable adjustments’ that can be made which would enable the employee to return to work, in accordance with the Equality Act. In appropriate cases these might include allowing the employee to work from home or temporarily altering the working hours or allowing a ‘phased return’ to work. For further information, see details on the Equality Act).

Step 5

If there is no requirement to make reasonable adjustments because of a disability, inform the employee that the consequences of failing to improve their absence levels could be disciplinary action. Document the conversation, and have the employee sign it as a record he was put on notice.

Step 6

Some employers have a sickness absence management procedure which states the level of sickness absences that will be tolerated and provides a series of warnings to operate if the rate of sickness absence does not improve. The final stage is dismissal, after appropriate disciplinary action and warnings have been issued. This has the advantage to both parties of making it clear the levels of sickness absence which can be tolerated and the consequences of sickness exceeding those levels.

Further reading on sickness absence


Neil Atkinson

Neil Atkinson is founder and Managing Director of HR outsourcing specialists Deminos.

Related Topics

Absence and Absenteeism

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