Your ultimate guide to employee absence

Want to know more about employee absence? What is it? What causes it to spike? How do you manage it?

This guide to absence is jam-packed with everything you need to know! Plus, we’ve popped it into a pdf too, so you can even enjoy it without a wifi connection, like if you’re camping in the wild, or sat on the Hogwarts Express.

absence management main image
what is absence
Chapter 1

What is employee absence?

    In this chapter you will learn...
  • The basics
  • How absence is different from other types of leave

When we talk about employee absence, we mean the absence you can’t control.

So, for example, as an employer you know Jack gets 28 days’ annual leave a year – so although he’ll be absent from work, you can plan for it. Meanwhile, when Kate takes a week off because she broke her wrist doing the worm at her friend’s wedding, you certainly can’t control it or plan for it. So, Kate’s absence is the type of thing we’re talking about when we say, ‘employee absence’.

Common types of absence that you can’t control or plan for as an employer include sickness (including stress and mental health issues), accidents, bereavement, and family commitments like needing to look after a dependant.

Note that parental leave can be planned for: you know when this period of leave is going to begin and when the person will return to work, so we wouldn’t really count that as employee absence.

Common types of absence that you can’t plan for include sickness, accidents, bereavement, and family commitments.

As an employer, employee absence can be a pain because it often occurs with little notice, leaving you with an under resourced team. This often translates to peeved employees who are stretched and overworked, which has a knock-on effect for your customers (and not a good one).

types of employee absence
Chapter 2

What are the main types of absence?

    In this chapter you will learn...
  • Short-term illness
  • Long-term sickness
  • Unable to attend work
  • AWOL

In short, absence is either authorised or unauthorised.

That means…well, pretty much what is says on the tin! Here are some common types of absence:

  1. Short-term illness

This kind of thing is likely to last less than seven days and so a fit note won’t be needed.

Common short-term illnesses include:

  • Colds and flu
  • Stomach upsets (e.g. that dodgy prawn curry you ate on Sunday night)
  • Headaches and migraines

This will be classed as authorised absence because the employee will call in sick and take some time off for some much-needed R&R to get better.

  1. Long-term sickness

This is usually defined as a period of continuous absence of more than four weeks. This sort of absence may be due to:

  • Unexpected illness
  • A chronic condition
  • An accident (e.g. doing the worm after one to many glasses of Pinot Grigio…)
  • A planned operation

This will also be authorised absence because you’ll be notified of this time off and why the employee isn’t at work.

  1. Unable to attend work

This is where the employee may feel fine, but due to things like family commitments, they can’t come to work. For instance, parents with sick children may need to stay at home to look after them. Employees with aging parents may have the same needs.

  1. Unauthorised absence (AWOL)

This is when someone doesn’t come to work and gives zero reason for their absence or doesn’t contact their employer. Other terms people use include: ‘AWOL’ or ‘absent without leave’.

If you’re facing any of these types of employee absence and you want some help on how to manage them, skip to how to manage absence.

reasons for absence to spike
Chapter 3

What causes absence to spike?

    In this chapter you will learn...
  • Reasons why absence might be spiking in your business
  • Seasonal challenges when it comes to employees having time off work
  • The impact of mental health on absence

Lots of things can cause a spike in absence!

Here are the main culprits:

Winter

While snow can be rather pretty, it’s a pain in the backside to drive in. Plus, it often forces school closures. In short, this means employees may struggle to get to work, either because their cars get stuck, public transport gets cancelled, or they need to stay home with their kids.

If you want to know more about how to manage winter absence, check out our helpful blog post.

Summer

Employee absences often rise dramatically during summer because of the heat, instances of sunstroke and sunburn, and pesky hay fever (achoo!!!)

Plus, when the sun comes out, so does John’s socks and sandals combo, which can mean only one thing: it’s time to bunk off early and head to the pub.

How can you manage absence during the summer season? What does the law say about employee rights during hot weather? Read this article to find out.

Sport

From a good old knees-up for a Derby Day, to getting up at 4am to watch a World Cup game, to sliding away early for the Wimbledon final… many of your employees will want to catch some sport. Whether they call in sick to do it, or just ‘work from home’ and watch it on the sly, you can always bank on sport to affect your employee absence rates. Download our 2021 summer of sport calendar and you’ll see what we mean!

Lifting lockdown in 2021

A rubbish 2020 (locked inside, away from friends and family) + easing lockdown rules (like being able to go to the pub) + a tiny bit of sunshine = skyrocketing employee absence rates in summer 2021.

This will come as no surprise to employers this year, absence will spike due to the excitement of a lockdown-free summer. Of course, many will be feeling anxious about a lifting lockdown too, which brings us to our next point.

Declining mental health

In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, research suggested that 37% of employers had seen an increase in absences due to stress. Furthermore, stress, depression and anxiety already accounted for 44% of ill-health among employees. They also accounted for 54% of all working days lost.

Sadly, the effects of the pandemic will undoubtedly be making these figures worse. Research from BUPA UK shows two thirds of those working from home are nervous about a return to the office. And one in four people are expecting their mental health to get worse as the country tries to re-open the economy. All of this will see employee absence rates increase this year.

How mental health affects absence

  • 37 %
    of employers had seen an increase in absences due to stress
  • 44 %
    of ill-health among employees is due to stress, depression and anxiety
  • 25 %
    of people expect their mental health to get worse as lockdown eases
Source: BUPA UK
cost of employee absence
Chapter 4

What is the cost of absence?

    In this chapter you will learn...
  • How much on average you're losing to absence a year
  • Why absence costs so much
  • The impact of declining mental health

A study carried out by XPertHR shows that employees are increasingly taking more absence days, averaging at 6.5 days per employee a year, up from 5.6 in 2018 across the UK.

What’s more, the larger your business is, the higher the chance your employees will take more sick days. Research shows that in a business with less than 100 employees, an average of 5.2 days are taken per employee, per year. That number jumps to 8 days for companies with more than 1,000 employees, yikes!

What does that translate to in terms of cash money? Well, for small businesses with less 250 employees, absenteeism costs them an average of £547 per employee, per year.

Companies with 250-999 employees lose £429 per employee, whilst large businesses with more than 1,000 employees lose an eye-watering £702 per person.

How much one employee's absence costs you per year

XPertHR Absence Survey 2020

£547

per employee for small businesses
(<250 employees)

£429

for medium sized businesses
(250-999 employees)

£702

per employee for large businesses
(>1,000 employees)

The impact of declining mental health

A study by Westfield Health found that mental health absences alone cost UK businesses £14bn in 2020. Employees took an average of 3.19 days off sick for mental health-related issues in 2020 – up from 2.9 days on average in 2019.

Why does absence cost so much?

It’s costly for a number of key reasons. Let’s take a look at the main ones:

  1. You may need to fork out for temporary cover

If an employee is absent for a substantial period, you may need to pay for a temporary worker to carry out their work. So, you may be paying for the absent employees’ leave (if your policies cover that) and you’ll be paying an agency for every hour the temporary worker does.

  1. You lose out on productivity

It will take time for a temporary worker, or an internal replacement, to learn the ropes. Plus, someone’s got to train and monitor them – which takes up more time. And of course, there’s the potential loss of management time spent consulting with HR and health specialists about the absent employee in question.

  1. You miff off your customers

Absence can cause serious disruption at work, with team members frantically trying to cover their absent colleague’s workload, as well as their own. This can lead to low employee morale, missed deadlines, mistakes, and a general nosedive in quality… not great for customer retention!

Want to learn more about the cost of employee absence? Read our whitepaper on how much employee absence costs businesses as a whole, and use our absence calculator to discover how much it costs your business.

How much absence costs you

XPertHR Absence Survey 2020

8

sick days taken per employee per year at larger businesses

£568

average cost per employee per year for absenteeism

£14bn

the cost of mental health absence in 2020 for UK businesses

How to prevent absence
Chapter 5

How to prevent absence

    In this chapter you will learn...
  • A step-by-step guide on how to prevent absence
  • Tips from our experts

Whilst you can’t prevent accidents happening outside of work – like Kate doing the worm – there are things you can do to prevent your absence rates from climbing.

Here are our top tips:

  1. Communicate an absence policy

A set of written guidelines in the form of an absence management policy will help balance the needs of both the employer and the employee. Communicate the policy clearly, and employees will know what’s expected of them.

  1. Set trigger points

Trigger points are the thresholds that ‘trigger’ line management action. For instance, organisations may set a trigger point for the number of days taken off during a set period.

When setting trigger points, you must consider the length and/or number of separate instances of absence over a fixed period – for example, three short-term absences in 26 weeks.

If an employee is regularly absent for short periods or for more than a given number of consecutive days (e.g. five consecutive days) the line manager can discuss any underlying health or disability issues and consider the circumstances that may be causing the absence.

If a period of absence becomes prolonged (i.e. more than four weeks), an employer may suggest a ‘fit for work’ referral to a health professional.

Note that some organisations use the Bradford Factor to score absence. It uses a mathematical formula to take the number and frequency of absences to produce a simple score based on their estimated impact on a business. However, you shouldn’t use it isolation, find out why.

  1. Keep up morale

Unhappy employees are more likely to call in sick. It’s therefore important to create an enjoyable and stimulating environment.

What will boost morale? Well, you’ll be glad to know you don’t need to invest half a million on a wacky office slide. You can arrange staff days out and social events (or course, these will be virtual during these Covid times….)

Employee benefits, including private healthcare and subsidised gym memberships, can also help to increase workplace positivity. These benefits work two-fold – encouraging your workforce to lead a healthier lifestyle and helping to reduce the risk of them falling ill.

  1. Understand the reasons

Get to the root of the problem to help you deal with it more effectively. As discussed, there are plenty of reasons why employees are absent from work – such as illness, injury or, occasionally, there’s no good reason at all (unless you think ‘binge watching the latest series of Line of Duty’ is a good reason?)

Back-to-work questionnaires or interviews will help you identify the ‘whys’ of the absence and show employees that you’re enforcing your absence policy.

  1. Reward good attendance

Try offering your workforce an attendance incentive. Whether it’s a juicy bonus for a perfect record, or for the least number of days off; many organisations have tried and succeeded with this approach. Of course, some argue that good attendance shouldn’t be rewarded at all, since it’s a basic requirement of a person’s employment. You’ll need to review how severe your absence issues are before deciding the right course of action here.

Understanding the root of the problem – why people are absent – will to help you deal with it more effectively.

  1. Create a safe workspace

Workplace accidents are common everywhere, whether at the office or at hazardous building sites. They’re often a result of inappropriate or worn-down equipment.

By failing to provide suitable equipment, you’re putting your employees and (potentially) members of the public in danger. Of course, accidents on the back of dodgy, old equipment also increase the likelihood of subsequent absence.

  1. Be realistic and flexible

Some circumstances can’t be anticipated. Now, more than ever, employees may need time off as a result of mental health issues. Whether it’s changes to their hours or allowing remote working, offering flexibility to your employees can help manage the effects of their absence and improve overall morale. You could also give employees the chance to buy additional holiday time or take a certain number of days off as unpaid leave.

How your work environment impacts absence

  • 3 %
    would bunk off work less if they had a stricter employer
  • 20 %
    would bunk off work less if they had an employer who prioritised a work/life balance
  • 18 %
    would bunk off work less if they were able to work from home
Source: Moorepay's Work Attitudes Survey 2021
How to manage absence
Chapter 6

How to manage absence

    In this chapter you will learn...
  • How to create an air-tight absence policy
  • The difference between managing short-term and long-term absence

Your absence management policy

OK, so we’ve already mentioned the need for an absence management policy to prevent absence. Of course, it’s also necessary to have one to manage absence. Hence the name, really.

So, what should your absence management policy contain?

  • The reporting procedure: this should include how and when to report sickness absence, whether contact must be made each day or less frequently and what information must be provided.
  • Evidence: this section covers what’s required for self-certification and when medical evidence (i.e. a fit note) is required, as well as any requirements to undergo examinations.
  • Unauthorised absence: the policy should be clear about the consequences of failure to follow the procedure and/or to provide evidence.
  • The return-to-work process: find out more below.
  • Pay: include what payments will be received, such as statutory sick pay and any entitlements to company sick pay, as well as any eligibility criteria for these payments.

How to manage short-term absence

Where an employee has frequent short periods of sickness absence, you should make sure they follow your company policy relating to reporting sickness and providing evidence (as mentioned above).

You should also investigate the reasons for the absence. It may be appropriate to obtain a medical report on the employee, to ascertain, among other things, if there’s an underlying cause of the absences.

Depending on the circumstances, it may be appropriate for you to instigate either its disciplinary or capability process. (Skip to the section on disciplinary here.)

How to manage long-term absence

Research shows that the longer an employee is off sick, the less likely they are to make a successful return. After six months of being absent, there’s only a 50% chance of the employee making a successful return.

Here are some things employers can do to manage long-term absence.

Welfare meetings

A welfare meeting is an effective tool for managing long-term absence. In short, it’s an informal meeting with the employee to discuss their state of health, any available prognosis, and the likelihood of a return to work. The welfare meeting should also include a discussion about what steps (if any) you can take as an employer to facilitate the employee’s return to the workplace.

Access to medical report

Depending on the openness of your employee, you may not always have all the information you need to understand when they can return to the workplace, and to support them in doing this. The Access to Medical Reports Act 1988 (AMRA) gives employers the right to access reports provided by medical practitioners in connection with employment.

Of course, the Act also gives employees the right to withhold their consent from certain information being provided about them by their doctors.

Reasonable adjustments

This is relevant where employees have or develop a disability which causes them to be absent from work.

A ‘reasonable adjustment’ is a change to remove or reduce the effect of an employee’s disability so they can do their job.

Examples include:

  • Providing the right type of phone for an employee who uses a hearing aid.
  • Providing office space on the ground floor for someone who uses a wheelchair.
  • Replacing a desk chair with one designed for an employee who has a disability affecting their back.
  • Giving one-to-one support to help an employee suffering from anxiety.
  • Allowing a phased return to work for an employee who’s been on long-term sick leave because of their disability (more on that, next).

Phased return to work

A ‘phased return to work’ includes returning to work on reduced hours, lighter duties or different duties. For instance, if someone’s been on sick leave due to an accident that affected their physical health, and part of their job requires heavy lifting; that element of their job would be omitted from their duties.

Of course, you and your employee should agree on a plan for how long the phased return will last. For example, you might agree to review how things are going after a month and then decide to increase the working hours or duties, or you might decide to continue with the changes for a little longer.

Note that you should continue to review the employee’s health and wellbeing in the workplace and make new adjustments if necessary.

Medical capability dismissal

Sometimes an employee may have to stop working because of long-term ill health. They may resign, or you may have to consider dismissing them.

Dismissal (jump to more on this below) is a last resort and you should consider as many ways as possible to help the employee back to work, including:

  • Getting a medical report from their GP with the employee’s permission – they have the right to see the report before you do.
  • Arranging an occupational health assessment.
  • Work out whether they have a disability and make any reasonable adjustments (as above) to help them do their job.

If the employee can’t do their job because there are no reasonable adjustments that can be made, it may be fair for you to dismiss them, even if they have a disability.

How to manage AWOL

First up, try to make contact. If no contact is made, then it’s time to put pen to paper and invite the employee to a meeting (potentially a disciplinary meeting) to allow the employee to provide an explanation for their absence.

If the employee fails to respond to the invite, you can take action in line with your disciplinary procedures.

ensuring a smooth, tep-by-step onboarding process
Chapter 7

Return to work interviews and fit notes

    In this chapter you will learn...
  • How to conduct a return to work interview
  • When to ask for a fit note

Return to work interviews

A return to work interview is a short and informal meeting held between the employee who has been absent and the employer. ‘Interview’ makes it sound quite formal and scary doesn’t it? They should’ve called it ‘return to work catch up’ – that’d be much better.

During the ‘interview’ the employer should check the doctor’s guidance in the employee’s fit note and discuss the details of how the employee will return to normal working life. You should also determine whether they have a disability, how this can be accommodated, and also if their absence was a result of any health and safety issues in the workplace.

The interview shouldn’t often be long or drawn out (again, think of it as a quick catch up). You can judge if you’ll need a bit more time based upon the circumstances.

For example, if someone is rarely absent and the reason is straightforward, the meeting may only last a few minutes. Where an employee has failed to follow company procedure, this will need to be addressed in the meeting (so it may take a bit longer than a few minutes).

Of course, an employee who persistently fails to follow the rules should be managed under your organisation’s disciplinary procedure. So, this would be a longer, different type of meeting.

Fit notes

‘The Statement of Fitness for Works’ is a bit of a mouthful, so everyone just calls them fit notes.

A fit note is provided by doctors to show an individual ‘may be fit for work’ or ‘not fit for work’. This means employers and their employees can have a more informed back-to-work discussion.

Generally, fit notes are provided when an employee has been absent from work for more than seven days. It may also include a doctor’s suggestions on how the individual can more effectively return to work. Additionally, you may also find on a fit note details of how the individual’s condition may affect aspects of their work.

Fit notes were introduced in April 2010, replacing the old ‘sick note’. Incidentally, ‘Sick note’ is also a dark comedy series starring the much loved, Rupert Grint and the guy out of Hot Fuzz (no, not Simon Pegg, the other one).

disciplinaries, appeals and dismissals
Chapter 8

Disciplinary action and dismissals

    In this chapter you will learn...
  • When and how to undertake disciplinary action
  • The right to make an appeal
  • Capability dismissals

When and how to conduct disciplinary action

When an employee’s absence is unexplained or unconvincing, it’s possible an employer can undertake disciplinary action.

But before jumping into this, be aware that genuine sickness, difficulties at home, or problems with the commute are not matters of misconduct.

Prior to taking any kind of disciplinary action, an employer should:

  • Request the absentee call in by a certain time each day
  • Have a line manager follow up on unexplained absences
  • Carry out a return-to-work interview
  • Give the employee an opportunity to improve by issuing oral or written warnings

Once you’re sure you’ve carried out the correct procedures and that the situation hasn’t improved, a dismissal may be considered as a last resort.

In order to follow a fair disciplinary procedure, the employer should provide the employee with:

  • Written details of the allegations being made against them
  • Any supporting evidence
  • An invitation to a disciplinary meeting
  • The opportunity to invite a colleague or trade union representative to their disciplinary hearing
  • The chance to put forward their case at the hearing
  • An outcome letter, detailing the result of the hearing and stating reasons for the decision

The right to make an appeal against their dismissal

If an employee fails to respond to an employer’s efforts to contact them, a disciplinary meeting can be conducted in their absence – but a letter should be sent informing them that action is being taken.

Capability dismissals

In extreme situations, it may be legally fair to dismiss a frequently absent employee even if the absence is genuine – usually on grounds of medical capability. But this should only be a last resort after thorough and careful process of medical investigation and consultation and after all other avenues have been explored.

download the absence guide pdf
Chapter 9

Guide download

    In this chapter you will learn...
  • Download this take-away guide

Your absence guide

Download a PDF version of this guide and take it with you.

In this guide you will learn…

  • How absence will change in 2021
  • How much does absence cost your business
  • How to prevent and manage absence
  • What to do when it comes to disciplinary action
Download Guide
tackling employee absence in 2021 guide

Making payroll & HR easy