Managing sickness in the workplace


From time to time, your employees are going to get ill and will need time off to recover. It is important that you have a policy in place to help you manage sickness in the workplace, in order to make sure it does not impact your overall productivity.

It is vital that you look after the health of your staff. If they need an hour or two away from work during the week for a dental or doctor’s appointment, let them, they can always make up the extra hours by coming in early or staying late another day. If you are flexible with them, you are much less likely to have lots of unexplained and unauthorised absences. Further, forcing them to take it off as unpaid leave or part of their holiday will not help create a loyal and motivated team, either.

There are different types of absence that you need to look out for:
• Short term sickness – lasting less than a week
• Long term illness – lasting several weeks or more
• Unauthorised absence – time off not related to sickness or injury

Sick leave and pay

Before you start to think about managing staff sickness, you will need to consider what your policy is going to be on sick leave and pay. If you let your employee know exactly what they will be getting paid and for how long, it can help alleviate some of their stress which can make it easier for them to recover.

In your contracts, you might have a section which sets out exactly what your employee is entitled to if they need to take extended time off. If you do not have this written in to your contracts, you can take your advice from the government’s statutory sick pay calculator and can find out more about sick leave and pay here.

Short term sickness

Short term sickness in the workplace can be difficult for you to manage because it is hard to plan for. You should make sure all your employees know what your protocols are for reporting absence.

You might want to ask them to let you know within an hour of their normal start time what their illness is and when they think they will be able to come back to work. If the illness lasts more than seven days, you might want to ask them to provide a note from their doctor, letting you know if they are fit to return to work. These notes can help you understand what jobs your employee will be able do when they return and whether they need to have lighter duties for a short period of time.

For short term sicknesses, you might want to refer to the Fit for Work service. They have lots of really useful information to help you bring your employees back in to work after a short absence.

Long term illness

Sometimes, your employee might develop a mental or physical long-term illness that will require them to take extended time off. You will need to make sure that you are sensitive to their needs and do not add to their stress, as this will make it harder for them to get better. You would not want to use your holiday days to recover from an operation, so do not force your staff to either.

To manage their absence you might want to:

• assess if their colleagues can manage for a while without a replacement, or whether you need to hire someone on a temporary contract
• keep in contact with them to let them know they have not been forgotten and to see how they are doing
• give regular updates about their job and their pay, as knowing where they stand can be really helpful in reducing stress and their recovery time.
Chat with your employee and ask for permission to speak to their GP about:
• when they might be able to return to work
• whether there will be a full recovery and if they need an amended work routine for a while
• whether bringing them back in part-time or with flexible hours to begin with is a good idea.

Absences caused by long term illness can be a big problem, but if you manage it properly it does not have to be damaging to your business. Make sure your employees know that you support them. Work with them to speed up their return to work, and consider hiring someone on a temporary contract to handle their workload while they are off.

Return to work interview

Once your employee feels well enough to return, it is a good idea to invite them to a return to work interview, where you will have a chat with them about how they are feeling and what work they are comfortably able to handle. If you create a list of questions that you ask each member of your team when they come back after an absence, you can help keep it standardised.

In your chat, you might want to ask about:
• how they are feeling
• whether they spoke with a GP or pharmacist
• if they’re on any medication
• whether they are able to do all parts of their job or if their responsibilities need tweaking a bit while you fully recover.

Having a return to work interview system in place shows your employees that you are interested in their health, and can help you understand what they are able to do until they have fully recovered. It can also be great to prevent people taking time off if they are not genuinely ill. It is much harder for them to lie about an illness face to face than over the phone or via email.

Unauthorised absence

Sometimes, unforeseen circumstances lead to an unauthorised absence from work. Your first step is to uncover what this reason is and make your judgement based on the circumstance. If they want to go to a birthday party, that is not really a viable reason to take time off, but if there has been an emergency or a serious family or personal problem, you will need to be a bit more flexible.

If it is an emergency and they briefly explain what the situation is, ask them to get back in touch later in the day when things are less stressful. When they call back, make sure you are sensitive to the problem and allow them the time to deal with anything that is really important.

If it is a serious family or personal problem, you will need to look at your compassionate leave policy. All employees are entitled by law to have unpaid ‘time off for dependents’ under the Employment Rights Act 1996. This allows them a reasonable amount of time off to deal with unforeseen matters and emergencies involving a dependant – a spouse, partner, child, parent, anyone living in their household, or someone they are responsible for. You can find out more about compassionate leave here.

However, your staff might not always have a justifiable reason for taking time off, and might avoid work for unnecessary causes. If this is the case, when they call in to take time off, ask them to come in to work as soon as possible to talk. It is a good idea to let them know they could be facing disciplinary action if they continue to take unjust time off, and that you will take the time out of their annual leave allowance.

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