How to deal with absence in the workplace

Staff absences can seriously affect the success of your business, your profits and your customer service, but it is possible to minimise the impact of absence by putting the proper measures in place to deal with it.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provides advice on dealing with staff absence. It advises that you create a climate of trust in your workplace. Agree early on that you will keep in contact with absent employees, so that it doesn’t come as a surprise to them and that you will keep a note of each contact made. You could also consider asking absent employees to phone in at a given time each day.

You should try to be as flexible as possible and treat each case individually and on a fair and consistent basis. You may wish to carry out ‘return-to-work interviews’, to give your employees the opportunity to discuss, in private, concerns about their health or other matters that may affect their performance or attendance.

Don’t jump to conclusions

Be aware that repeated absence does not necessarily amount to misconduct. Don’t jump to dismiss someone who is frequently off work. It is worth trying to find the cause of the problem and avoid the cost of recruiting and training more staff or unfair dismissal claims.

The HSE warns strongly against making assumptions about your employee’s situation. Don’t assume that repeated absence means that the claim is not genuine; you could end up alienating an innocent employee.

It would be better to speak to them directly to get to the root of the problem. You may, for instance, find that reasons for unauthorised absence are work-related, due to bullying or harassment. In this case you will need to think about how to tackle this anti-social behaviour.

Give staff a chance

Employees should really be given an opportunity to improve and usually warnings, both oral and written, will usually help them to realise that there is a problem. If, however, the situation doesn’t improve, you may have to consider dismissal, but only as a last resort and after proper and fair procedures have been followed.

Nevertheless, remember that sickness does occur, boilers do break down occasionally, and that any of these things can happen on a Friday or on a Monday. It doesn’t necessarily mean that staff are trying to extend their weekend.

Produce written guidelines

Essentially, if you have clear, written guidelines for employees, which detail leave entitlement and procedures for reporting sickness, everyone should be aware of their responsibilities and this will minimise problems that may occur later.

An effective absence and sickness policy should detail when time off might be permitted; how the employee should notify you if they are ill, late for work, or absent for other reasons; sick pay arrangements; and when they should submit a ‘self certificate’ or ‘medical certificate’. Under statutory sick pay rules, self certification is only required from the fourth day and a medical certificate from the eighth day of absence. You could also stipulate the requirement to attend a return-to-work interview and the consequences of not complying with the policy, such as disciplinary measures.

You may want to include terms in staff contracts that enable you to keep absence records so as to monitor absence levels and reasons for absence. In order to hold detailed absence records for this purpose you need the employee’s consent, as this information is sensitive personal data under the Data Protection Act 1998.

Pinpoint problem areas

Improved working conditions, such as the introduction of flexible working hours, can help to minimise unexpected lateness or absence, but where there is a pattern of absence emerging it is worth looking at all aspects of your employees’ working conditions.

For example, if absence occurs most in one department, motivation might be a problem, or stress due to heavy workloads. You may have to think about reallocating certain tasks.

Following these simple steps should enable you to create an environment that is conducive to working effectively with your staff. Trust and knowing your responsibilities and those off the employee are key here, and identifying problems early will help you to make the most of your staff and their time at work.

See also: Five effective ways to deal with staff sickness in the workplace

Adam Wayland

Adam Wayland

Adam was Editor of from 2006 to 2008 and prior to that was staff writer on sister publication BusinessXL Magazine.

Related Topics

Absence and Absenteeism

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