September 18, 2013

Managing Sickness Absence More Effectively

Recent figures estimate that, as a country, we lose £15 billion in economic output each year from sickness absence.

This equates to 131 million working days lost each year. This is a clearly a huge problem and employers should take whatever steps they can to manage both short-term and long-term absences effectively.

An absence of 4 weeks or more is classed as a period of ‘long-term’ absence. It is estimated that long-term sickness absence makes up 20% of all total absences and 70% of the cost to employers.

Steps to Managing Sickness Absense More Effectively

The following steps can help employers manage absence in the workplace more effectively:

1. Measure all periods of absence to discover:

  • How much time is being lost as a consequence of sickness
  • Where absence occurs most
  • How often individual employees are absent

2. Monitor each absence by:

  • Keeping records of individual periods of sickness absence.
  • Having accurate records that show individual instances of absence together with the duration, the reason for absence and where in the organisation the absentee works.
  • Carrying out a return to work interview with employees following each period of absence.
  • Ensuring that records can easily be analysed by section or department, month and year.
  • Assuring staff that any sensitive personal data will only be kept for as long as necessary and will only be accessed by named individuals.
  • Making sure that absence measurement figures show the scale and nature of any absence problem and which category of absence is involved. For example: Long term sickness / Short term certificated or uncertified sickness / Unauthorised absence and lateness.

3. Deal with long-term sickness by:

  • Discussing the problem with the employee concerned.
  • Considering alternative work or working arrangements where this is possible.
  • Deciding whether the job can be covered by other employees or temporary replacements and how long the job can be kept open.
  • Seeking medical opinions from the employee’s GP

NB It is important that employers consider the provisions set out in the Equality Act 2010 when dealing with long-term absences. For example, in respect of an employee with a disability, the employer should consider whether workplace adaptations could enable the individual to return to work.

The ACAS Advisory Booklet, “Managing Attendance and Employee Turnover” is a good practice guide for any employer, large or small. The guide covers the management of both long and short term sickness absence.

Goverment Plans To Tackle Sickness Absence

An independent review of the current sickness absence system conducted in 2011, found that the State spends around £13 billion a year on health-related benefits. As a result of the review, the government has pledged to establish a Health and Work Assessment and Advisory Service to provide state-funded occupational health assessments of employees who are off sick for four or more weeks (e.g. those who are absent long term). It is anticipated that the new scheme could save employers up to £165 million a year in statutory sick pay and associated costs and increase economic output by up to £900 million a year.

In Addition, the government plan to:

  • Abolish record-keeping obligations for statutory sick pay to allow employers to keep records in a less prescriptive manner for a shorter period of time.
  • Abolish the Percentage Threshold Scheme which compensates employers for higher-than-average sickness absence (as this reduces incentives to manage absence).

It is hoped that the new Health and Work Assessment Advisory Service will be introduced by the end of next year at the latest. The service is anticipated to cost between £25 million and £50 million, although the benefit to the Exchequer will be in the region of £100 million and £215 million. The new service will be aligned with social security benefits and employees will be forced to engage with the assessment process or have their medical certificates stopped.

It has been suggested that only 10% of smaller employers currently have access to an occupational health service, compared with more than half of staff working for larger organisations. The new service will enable employers of all sizes to access expert advice to help manage absence in the workplace.

The new initiative will ensure employers receive bespoke, independent advice for cases of sickness absence lasting more than four weeks. Experts agree that this approach will help prevent thousands of people falling out of work and into long-term sickness benefit.


  • Personnel Today: “Legal Implications of long term sickness absence and occupational health”
  • Department for Work and Pensions / ACAS websites
  • Employment Law Today CIPD web site: “CIPD Welcomes Government Commitment to reduce long term sickness absence” 17th January 2013

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