Caroline Acton, Lawyer at ESP Law Ltd provides advice and guidance on how to manage sickness absence, to benefit the health of employees and the organisation alike…
Sickness absence in the labour market rarely leaves the HR headlines. It is renowned as one of the UK’s most costly employment problems, which explains why so many businesses are keen to address absences before they escalate beyond control. However, with wellbeing rising up the Human Resources agenda and employers increasingly being expected to do more to safeguard the workforce, this is not an area of HR where corners can be cut.
So how should HR professionals manage sickness absences to ensure they remain on the right side of the law, and with maximum respect for their duty of care to staff?
This is far from a straightforward process, and much depends on the culture and scale of the absence issue, in any given organisation. However, some general tips do help to focus HR thinking and form the foundations of an absence management plan:
1. Have a sickness absence policy
It sounds such an obvious point to make, but the organisation’s stance on absences must be clearly documented and all colleagues should be aware of/have access to the content. That way, there can be no confusion among employees as to how and who to notify when they report leave.
2. Ask the right questions.
Managers need to be equally as ‘clued up’ as to the right questions to ask when an employee calls in sick, such as details of the individual’s sickness and likely return date. The importance of training and communication can therefore not be underestimated.
3. Stay in touch.
This is a difficult thing to balance. Employers often don’t want to overwhelm the absent individual, as it is important to let them recover. However, a ‘check in’ call is recommended to see how they’re getting on. If they’re on long-term absence, a catch up every two weeks will suffice. Remember, it is the employer’s responsibility to request updates on the medical condition.
4. Check the employee’s entitlement to sick pay.
Some organisations provide full pay, whilst others revert to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) – providing they qualify. It is important that the organisation’s stance on pay is clearly documented, universally understood and consistently remunerated.
5. Gather evidence.
If the employee is off for less than seven calendar days they should complete a “self-certification form”. With longer absences, a fit note must be requested confirming that their health is affecting their fitness to work. This, and other related evidence, helps ensure the process is fair and transparent.
6. Maintain a paper trail.
Minute all calls and meetings held, and follow up all correspondence with a letter confirming the conversation and any next steps agreed. Consider the writing style as, if necessary, this could be used in a tribunal proceeding.
7. Have a welcome back meeting.
ACAS recommends a return to work interview after all employee absences, however it is up to the employer if they wish to hold one for every absence or periods of three days’ absence or more, for example.
8. Promote equality.
If the employee has a physical or mental impairment that will have a long-term effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, the employer is subject to Positive Duty. Reasonable adjustments should therefore be made to enable the staff member to return to work.
9. Take further steps if needed.
If the employee is regularly off sick and a potential problem is becoming apparent, a formal procedure should be considered. Once again, the sickness policy should document when a formal procedure will apply, e.g. ‘ X number of occasions of absence within a 12 month period’.
10. Be proactive.
Monitor the organisation’s sickness absence statistics and look for trends. This could help to uncover an underlying problem such as a departmental/line manager conflict, a culture or working practice that is detrimental to wellbeing or general feelings of unrest among the workforce. By taking proactive steps to address any potential issues, it may be possible to prevent absences from occurring in the first place.
Encouragingly, CIPD statistics in March 2017 revealed that sickness absence figures are at their lowest rate since records began. Admittedly, 137.3 million days – equivalent to 4.3 per employee – were still lost to sickness in 2016, but these findings did represent significant progress. HR professionals need to build on this momentum and ensure robust strategies are implemented to manage absences fairly, responsibly and compliantly when they do arise.
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