How to prevent and manage staff sickness absence
Worker absence appears to be declining: the Office for National Statistics reports that the average UK worker took just over four days' sick leave in 2016.
But even if absences are dropping, that doesn't mean the problem has gone away. Indeed, other surveys have noticed a rise in sick rates (FirstCare reported the highest rate of worker absence for six years for the month of January 2017). In any case, turning up doesn't always mean being productive: the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reported in early 2018 that increasing numbers of staff come to work while ill.
Whatever the trend, staff sickness is an enduring challenge, especially for charities that already stretch themselves thin with minimal manpower. So what can be done?
Understand the impact of sickness on the organisation
There are many direct and indirect effects of staff sickness absence, including:
- Decreased overall productivity due to worker absence
- Financial obligations to pay salary or sick pay to absent employees
- Sourcing, training and paying for cover, if needed
- Possible reduced levels or delays in services provided to clients or beneficiaries
- Additional workload for colleagues, leading to potential overwork, work-related stress, lower morale and even sickness among other staff
Do what you can to prevent illness
The impact of absences means it's well worth investing in preventative arrangements, such as:
- Flexible working: Flexible working arrangements that allow employees to either work from home or vary their start/finish times can help them achieve a better work-life balance, and reduce the chance of stress-related illness (as well as boosting employee engagement). Some employers say there’s a clear link between flexible working and reduced sickness rates: one company claims it led to a decrease of 10-20 percent of Friday sickness absence levels.
- Promoting a heathy lifestyle: Physical activity is strongly linked to being physically healthier, as well as reducing stress and depression. Perks like free gym membership or on-site sports facilities can be great for encouraging staff to keep fit and active. Budget-strapped organisations can organise lunchtime walks or running clubs to get staff moving.
- Encourage adequate sick leave. Pressuring staff to come back work before they've fully recovered not only risks prolonging the illness, it also risks spreading infections to your other team members.
- Looking after mental health: Mental health issues are behind a significant portion of sickness absence. Managers should pay attention to signs of overwork or stress, particularly in periods of high pressure. Encourage taking proper breaks — and make sure senior staff set an example by doing the same. Consider investing in an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), which makes counselling available to your employees. Currently they’re available for £2-£3 per employee per year for telephone-only services (around £14 if including face-to-face counselling).
Create processes to manage absences
Then, use these tips for managing absence:
- Monitor absences. Record all absence for all employees. Review the data and look for trends (such as absences frequently falling on a particular day of week) — this can give an insight into underlying issues such as under-resourcing, low morale, or ineffective management.
- Create and communicate a clear absence policy. Make sure you have a clear policy (developed in consultation with your staff). This should include a calling-in procedure that does not allow sickness notification through a third party such as family members or friends, unless of course the staff member is physically unable to make the call.
- Know your sick pay arrangements and apply them. Do you pay full pay or statutory sick pay? For how long? To whom? Most policies will cease to pay sick employees after a reasonable period — make sure this is specified in your policy and clearly communicated to employees.
- Self-certification process is a must. Ask for self-certification for absences of seven days and under. This could involve asking employees to complete a simple form about their absence, giving their reasons. ACAS has sample forms which are free to download and use.
- Insist on a GP’s fit note for absences of eight days and over. Ensure that new certificates are obtained if the old one expires and absence continues.
- Use return-to-work meetings. Managers should meet the employee to discuss their illness – however short-term it might be, and preferably immediately on the employee's return to work. While not a legal requirement, it’s a good opportunity to understand reasons for absence and to identify support that may be lacking. Employees are entitled to not disclose personal details (but in this case employers have the right to make a decision regarding an employee based on the available information).
Put in contingency plans for senior staff sickness
The procedures above will help to manage occasional days off and short-term illnesses. However, dealing with a long-term sickness of a senior member of staff can be very challenging.
One backup plan worth considering is income protection insurance for a vital, high-paying role such as your chief executive or operations director. (Such insurance would cover the employee’s sick pay, but not other costs such as recruitment costs for a replacement.) The average cost to the employer of such a policy is around £200 per employee per year, but this may be a sound investment given the potential financial burden of an extended absence.
Know your legal position
There are some legal implications employers need to be aware of. For example, an employee with a disability may have additional rights to “reasonable adjustments” such as disability leave, so standard procedures may not apply.
To be clear on what your rights are as an employer and what your employee is entitled to, see the ACAS website.
FirstCare: FirstCare Index: The UK’s First Absence Management Barometer (2017)