Category Archives: absence management

Tis the Season For Sickness Absence

sickness absence


“Cover up your coughs and sneezes. If you don’t, you’ll spread diseases.”

Winter is upon us and so, it seems, tis the season for sickness according to some of my clients.  Most employers notice a huge increase in sickness absence in the winter months particularly December.  A few years ago a survey by BUPA found 71% of employers had a problem caused by coughs, colds and flu.

The impact on remaining staff due to increasing workloads and costs to a business due to absent staff can cause a real headache for business owners.

It is really important to have a sickness absence procedure in place which is followed by all employees.  The sickness procedure should be clearly stated in the employment contract and employee handbook.  Employees who fail to call in sick should be considered AWOL which is deemed to be either misconduct or gross misconduct depending on the company’s view and statement in the employee handbook.  There should be no excuses for calling in.  Ideally it should be the sick employee, or if they are considered to be on their “deathbed”, a friend, partner or spouse should oblige.  Compliance and adherence to the sickness absence procedure is paramount to ensure good staff morale.  if employees are allowed to “get away with it”, such an attitude will cause big problems in a company.

Return to work interviews are a useful management tool so that the spotlight is placed on the returning employee who is questioned about their sickness absence.  Managers should check if their version of events adds up.  For example, photos on Facebook where they have been partying the night before a sick day needs to be questioned or if they have been seen out, seemingly, not worse for wear.

Many companies now operate SSP instead of generous occupational sick pay schemes.  SSP can be a useful tool to prevent intermittent odd sick days with employees who are on lower wages.

An alternative can be health promotions to employees of how they can improve their health and fitness over the winter months can help eg encouragement of flu jab uptakes.

Mental Health In The Workplace

mental health

Source: Free Digital Images/artur84

The death of Robin Williams this week has highlighted the issues of mental health and its devasting effects.  Mental health in the workplace is often a difficult subject to deal with as it can be misunderstood.  Mental health issues can include depression, anxiety and bi polar disease to name but a few conditions.  Employees with mental health issues may appear troublesome and managing them can be difficult to their behaviour which can include being disruptive, turning up for work late or not showing up at all.

Mental health is surrounded by prejudice, ignorance and fear.  People with mental health have many problems may include:

  • People become isolated
  • They are excluded from everyday activities
  • It is harder to get or keep a job
  • People can be reluctant to seek help, which makes recovery slower and more difficult
  • Their physical health is affected

One in four of us will experience a mental health issue at some point in our lives and one in ten young people.  We shall probably work with someone experiencing mental health and those who have mental health issues fear the reaction about discussing their problems.

There are many myths about mental health issues:

  • Mental health problems are very rare.
  • People with mental illness aren’t able to work.
  • Young people just go through ups and downs as part of puberty, it’s nothing.
  • People with mental health illnesses are usually violent and unpredictable
  • It’s easy for young people to talk to friends about their feelings.

People with mental health problems are more dangerous to themselves than they are to others:  90% of people who die through suicide in the UK are experiencing mental distress.  Substance abuse appears to play a role: The prevalence of violence is higher among people who have symptoms of substance abuse (discharged psychiatric patients and non-patients).

It makes good business sense to support employees with mental health issues.  The Equality Act 2010 protects employees with mental health issues and they are protected against disability discrimination.

Where an employee’s mental health is impacting on their job role an employer should seek occupational health advice to establish if they are fit for work and if there are any reasonable adjustments that could be made to enable them to remain the workplace.  It is essential to seek such advice particularly if dismissal is being considered.

An employer needs to demonstrate they have taken into account the following which was set out in case law Lynock v Cereal Packaging Ltd [1988] IRLR 511,:

  • the nature of the illness
  • the likelihood of it recurring or of some other illness arising
  • the length of the various absences and the periods between them
  • the need for the employer to have the work done
  • the impact of the absences on other employees
  • the importance of a personal assessment of the situation
  • the importance of consultation with the employee
  • the importance of appropriate warnings of dismissal if there is no noticeable improvement.


Helping The Sick Back to Work With Medical Interviews

This November the government is introducing a two year pilot scheme designed to get people who are receiving sickness benefits back to work with regular medical interviews.  Healthcare professionals will help people on sickness benefits to address the barriers to work or face losing their benefits.

The pilot will be run across the Black Country, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland, Staffordshire and Shropshire.  3,000 people will take part all of whom have been identified as being fit to work in the next 18-24 months.  These sick people will have regular medical interviews as a condition of receiving their benefit hopefully helping them move closer to getting a job.  The interviews will be separate to GP appointments and will attempt individuals to engage with their GP if that relationship appears to be broken.

The results of the pilot will be compared to those of a different scheme where employment-focused support is being offered through the Jobcentre or work programme providers.  The aim is to see which scheme is the most successful in getting people back to work.

The schemes are being introduced in an effort to stem the increasing benefits bill that currently comes in at almost £220 billion pounds.


Understanding The Access to Medical Records Act

In sickness absence management it is important that employers investigate the situation fully which will include gaining access to medical records.  In the majority of cases this will be so they can provide support to the employee to enable them to return to work, possibly with reasonable adjustments if they are classed as disabled under the Equality Act.  In other cases, it may be to consider ill health termination or disciplinary action if the employee has not been truthful with regards the reasons behind their absence.

The Access to Medical Records Act allows an employer to gain access to those medical records with the full permission of the employee.  If an employer has a situation where the employee refuses to comply with such a request, then they must make a decision on their ongoing employment based purely on the information to hand.  If an employee has high sickness absence and refuses to allow access to their medical records then a possible outcome could be dismissal.

An employer can use a medical professional to gain a report on the employee’s medical condition and its long term prognosis, to find out whether they are classed as disabled and may need reasonable adjustments for example.   Whilst the employee’s GP can be approached, they will be only interested in the best interests of their patient and the information they may provide may be lacking for the employer.  An occupational health advisor, on the other hand, will work in the best interests of the employer and provide a well rounded report so the employer can take action.

The employee should provide written consent to a report being produced on their medical condition and agree to a possible medical examination.  The process should be open and transparent with the employee fully involved.  They have the right to see the report before it is provided to the employer and have 21 days to so.  They can amend the report if they do  not agree with certain aspects that could be misleading or are incorrect.  If the medical professional refuses to amend the report the employee can withdraw consent that the report is provided to the employer or may add their own written explanation to be attached to the report.


Role of the Fit Note in Managing Absence

On 6 April 2010 the fit note replaced the doctor’s sick note that had been in existence for sixty years.  It was intended that this new system will enable employees to get back to work more quickly and reduce absence costs, which cost the UK economy 17.3 billion annually.   The fit note system focuses on what employees can do rather than what they can’t do focusing on positives rather than negatives. 


The fit note, a copy of which can be downloaded from, has advice options for completion and no need for the employee to return to the GP to be confirmed fit; the fit note merely expires. 

The fit note is still required after seven consecutive days sickness and there are obligataions under the Equality Act 2010 so that any advice in that respect could be binding. 


The first fit note issued by the GP can last for a maximum period of three months when hopefully the employee will be back at work.  However a subsequent fit not can be issued for a longer period eg six months.  There is no need for a GP to have a face to face assessment of their patient to issue a fit note, it can be done over the telephone.  
The GP’s advice on the fit note is not binding; it is meant to lead to a discussion between employee and employer.  If an employee or an employer do not agree with the fit note’s reasonable adjustments due to impracticalities in the workplace either can choose not to accept these and the employee can remain off sick until the expiry of the fit note.   
Likewise if an employee wishes to return to work earlier than the fit note states, they may do so provided the employer is in agreement.  However, in such cases, employers need to be wary of employees wishing to return to work for financial reasons and not being fully fit.  To overcome potential liabilities, employers could implement a risk
assessment, discuss concerns, ask the employee to go back to the GP or use occupational health advice to back up a decision. 
The role of the line manager is key in the successful operation of the fit note system.  They will need to be proactive and develop a whole new set of skills with clear guidance and training provided by the organisation.  Managers need to understand what they have to do.  
Organisations need to develop a clear procedure for the fit note process to be incorporated into an existing absence policy.   Any changes should be consulted over and clearly communicated to all members of staff.

The procedure should detail obligations for both manager and employee and how the process will work in practice.  For example, the requirement for a face to face meeting called in writing to discuss suggested reasonable adjustments, if appropriate, should ideally be necessary.  The discussion should include whether the adjustments are
viable, how they will work and how long they will last.  

The possible use of occupational health should also be discussed and if appropriate an appointment set up, which would delay a proposed return.  Also there might need to be a simple risk assessment to ensure safety on return.  The impact on colleagues in relation to the employee’s reasonable adjustments could also be an issue for
discussion.  A clear date should be set for the employee to return to work with hours and duties confirmed and any restrictions.  
The subject of pay may need to be included particularly where there is no contractual sick pay.  The procedure may need to incorporate an enhanced SSP supplement for a phased return to work for example so that it is worthwhile for the employee.  Any issue related to this should be discussed with HMRC on 08457 143143.
Likewise if an employee can not be allowed back to work for impracticality reasons, they need to have these clearly explained.
Extra care should be taken with certain types of workers – home workers, shift workers, safety critical employees and those who work at heights for example.
The meeting should be documented and confirmed in writing with a copy for the employee to sign to show agreement to a proposal.  To standardise company practice a pro forma for meetings could be created or a check list drawn up to help managers cover the appropriate areas.  
The return to work should be monitored on a regular basis to ensure the employee and manager is both happy with the situation.  This can be done by weekly 1:1s which are documented and take place until the employee is back to work as previously.  
Use occupational health or an independent GP to investigate long term or difficult areas of absence for protection against any possible disability discrimination claims.


Key Points to Remember

ƒ Discuss the advice on the fit note

ƒ Consider how it affects the job

ƒ Consider the return to work options

ƒ Discuss the options with employees

ƒ Is a return to work possible?