Robey’s Blog: Making Sickness Work

Our popular columnist Robey discusses the difficult question of sickness absence and how to handle it.

Twice in the last week, from quite separate directions, I’ve fielded identical queries about sickness absence, which is always a sign that perhaps it’s something worth writing about here.

In each case, a manager was worried about how to handle a new hire who was taking a lot of time off sick within their first few months of work.  Most managers see higher-than-average sickness absence as a problem; and it is a problem, of course, but the problem may not lie where you think it is, and the solution may be better for you than you think.

So when you’re looking at high sickness absence, don’t rush to judgement but think about some of these points:


  1. What’s your freedom of manoeuvre?

When you’ve got a new worker with high absence, it’s easy to assume that sacking them and starting from scratch is the easiest option.  An employee with less than two years’ service doesn’t have the right to bring a claim for unfair dismissal, after all…

But there’s a big, fact caveat attached to that, and it’s called the Equality Act 2010.  If your employee’s absence is related to a protected characteristic, such as disability, then they can do you for unfair dismissal and the potential fines are unlimited.

In one of the cases I was asked about, the employee’s partner was heavily pregnant and the absences were to support her through a tricky time and due to his own stress.  As his absences were directly attributable to his wife’s pregnancy, he is covered by association with a protected characteristic.

So your freedom of manoeuvre might not be as generous as you expect.  It just takes a few moments of thought when a problem is identified to know whether you can or can’t wield the hammer of wrath.  Sometimes, it may not be immediately obvious until you know what the underlying issue might be.


  1. What’s the underlying issue?

There is always an underlying issue in all problematic sickness absence.  The issue either lies with the employee – whether it be disability, chronic illness, family issues, an unhealthy lifestyle, laziness or an impractical obsession with a particular sports team – or with the employer – an unhealthy working environment, abusive line manager, bullying team-mates or incredibly boring tasks.


  1. What can you do to improve things?

Underlying issues divide neatly into things you can do something about and things you can’t.  Chronic illness and disability are obvious employee issues you can and, indeed, must do something about in terms of getting informed about reasonable adjustments by talking to your employee and, ideally, consulting an Occupational Health service.  But family and personal issues may also be something you can help out with by engaging a provider of an Employee Assistance Programme.  Sometimes, all it needs to get someone back to work is the knowledge that they can reach out in confidence to someone form counselling and encouragement.  And if you’re looking at an EAP, find out if the provider also gives advice – by phone or online – about healthy lifestyles.

You don’t have an obligation to help employees in this way, but it will help some people to get their attendance back to an acceptable level.

Employer issues, meanwhile, are wholly under your control.  Abuse, bullying, poor health and safety culture or unengaging work are all problems you can – and should – do something about.  Because if the problem lies in the workplace, you can be pretty sure that the employee currently under your microscope won’t be the only one suffering: he or she is your bellwether, so ignore it at your peril.


  1. What can they do to improve things?

Well, turning up for work would be a good start, yes, I know.  But there needs to be give and take in any process of managing problematic absence.  If you refer them to OH, they have to cooperate and agree to share the physician’s report.  If you point them to an EAP or lifestyle advice, they can use those things.  If they share issues about the workplace that are underlying their absence, they can stay in communication about whether measures to address those are working or not.


  1. Why should I bother to do any of this?


Well, this is where we come to the crux of the matter.

Other than reducing the chances of the costly unpleasantness of an Employment Tribunal (suddenly a much more likely prospect than it was a week ago!), taking time to look at problem absence more broadly will mean that you are likely not only to fire less frequently, but also to do so in a way that actively supports the employee back to satisfactory working practice.

First of all, a close examination of an employee’s absence can work on a lot of levels to get them back to work on its own.  Put their absence in the context of their less-absent colleagues and you have the power of peer pressure.  Knowing that they are under the microscope enforces better behaviour.

But it also creates a more positive pressure.  Just knowing that an employer is interested in resolving the obstacles between them and their attendance at work can support someone back on its own.  When you add in the practical impact of that interest – improving conditions, providing guidance, dealing with conflict – the end result is often an employee who is more productive than they were before the problem absence began.

In fact, if – like many workplaces – you’re struggling with a way to create a more engaged and loyal workforce, to reduce turnover and raise quality, then a few cases of problem absence can actively work in your favour by providing compassionate, professional dialogue with absent employees instead of just throwing the book at them.

And if you don’t see an improvement?

Well, then the groundwork has already been done to move the employee gently – but firmly – towards the exit in a legally-compliant fashion.


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