“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.
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.
The recent media interest in Conservative MP Nadine Dorries who has apparently gone to the Australian jungle to feature in “I’m a celebrity get me out of here” without apparently obtaining parliamentary permission has brought to light the matter of what to do with an employee who has gone AWOL.
Failing to turn up to work can be deemed to be gross misconduct and following the disciplinary procedure is essential whether the employee eventually comes back to work or repeatedly fails to turn up at all.
If the employee has turned up for work an initial conversation or return to work interview will provide investigatory evidence from which should follow a disciplinary meeting to formally give the employee a chance to respond to the allegation of being absent without leave. Without a plausible excuse a suitable warning should be delivered with the right to appeal.
If the employee has not turned up work attempts should be made to get in touch with them to find out the reason for their absence. Any letters should be delivered by recorded delivery.
Now Ms Dorries has been evicted from the camp we must wait and see what treatment the government doles out to her.
The first Monday in February is unofficially known as “National Sickie Day” as it is the day employees are most likely to call in sick. The reasons being the freezing cold days, travelling to work and home in the dark and the summer holiday in the very distant future. It is estimated that this year 400,000 employees will have done so costing the UK economy £43m.
Every year sickness absence costs £700 per employee in the UK. Given the state of the economy businesses can not afford to put up with employees consisting calling in sick so managing sickness absence is very important. Absence is a financial cost to the business as well as a cost to motivation and morale of the workforce.
There are two types of absence that need to be dealt with using a fair procedure.
For frequent intermittent absence where an employee phones in on a regular basis with indiscriminate illnesses, employers need to track what is happening to look for any trends such as the Monday/Friday syndrome or an employee being sick at particular times. Armed with the information the employer then needs to discuss the situation with the employee to find out what is causing the absence, using an occupational health referral as required. The employer needs to stress an improvement is required and then if that does not happen move onto use of the disciplinary process if appropriate. If a disability has come to light during medical investigation then reasonable adjustments are essential.
For long term absence where an employee has a serious medical condition then regular meetings are essential with an occupational health referral for advice on how to manage the situation. Long term if the employee is unable to return to work then an ill health termination must be considered.