Separating the Sick from the Slack

Posted on 3rd June 2014

This is always such a “hot topic” with us and is a sell out seminar when we run it. It is also often a topic that is misunderstood. It is a common misconception that if someone has lots of time off sick then the employer cannot do anything about it. The good news is that they can and by following some of the guidance in this series of blogs then it need not be such a big problem.

Employee absence due to sickness can be broadly categorised in to three main areas when it comes to HR queries:

1 – persistent short term absence; the person who has lots of odd days off, so not a lot of time lost but very disruptive.

2 – long term sickness; usually defined as an absence of 4 weeks or more.

3 – employees “pulling a sickie”; when someone calls in sick and you are convinved they are actually enjoying a duvet day.

This first blog looks at 1 and 3, as they are very often linked or thought of in the same way. In July we will look at long term sickness (2) which is very different and ways of preventing absence.

Since April 2014, the recovery of SSP has been abolition and so sickness now has a larger cost to business so it is even more important to manage it. Every year employee absence loses UK businesses an average of 6.8 working days per employee; if your business cannot afford to lose this much productivity, then read on.

Do you have a problem with absence in your business?

I know from being a business owner and employer – and even more so from my years in HR – that employing people can bring its problems. One of the biggest of these can be when there is an issue with employee absence, whether this is one person who has lots of odd days off and causes chaos, someone who becomes very ill and is out of the business for a long time, or a combination of both from a variety of people. If absence gets out of control then the impact it can have on a business can be very damaging.

The obvious starting point to discovering if you have a problem is to document how much absence there is in your business. It may be that in most areas/teams/departments/branches all is fine but in one particular area absence is much higher; this would definitely need investigating further. There are many ways to measure absence but the starting point has to be recording it in some way, whether paper based or computer. We would always recommend some aspect of computer recording so it can be analysed more easily, and for our clients we use a HR software system that allows this to happen seamlessly and generate reports they need to manage their teams. Measuring/benchmarking absence as accurately as possible will give you an idea as to whether absence in your business is within an acceptable level or not.

What is an acceptable level? Well, there are many statistics out there from various sources – we tend to use those from the CIPD, the professional body for HR, and these show that the average employee has 6.8 days absence per year, so if you employ 20 people that is 136 days of lost productivity per year – and that is the average, it could be a lot higher. The average cost of absence is around £366 per employee per year,but the impact goes way beyond the cost of any sick pay. Certainly one of the biggest impacts for many of our clients is the time and cost taken to organise cover, if that is even possible. Disrupting the service given to the customer/client, regardless of the business, is never a good thing and if it happens on a regular basis can damage that relationship. It is very hard to put a price on that, but most businesses have an idea of what it costs to get new clients and that is a lot more than simply the cost of any sick pay.

Short-term absence

The most common type of absence, and the most destructive, is where an employee takes lots of odd days off sick and you never know when this is going to happen – hence the disruptive nature of it. If someone is signed off by their doctor for a few weeks it is not ideal but at least you know and can put plans in place. Very different to the person who calls in at 8.45am to say they won’t be making it in. You then have to rearrange the work they were due to do, perhaps doing it yourself or adding it to someone else’s workload.

So what can you do about it? Surely if someone is sick they are sick? One of the first steps, as outlined above, is to look at your records to see if you can identify any established patterns. Perhaps when you look at an employee’s absence record in detail you might notice that they are always off on a certain day of the week or at a certain point in the month or year. Once you have this you can then manage that person’s absence through your businesses absence management policy which will cover short-term absence. As a business you have the right to manage people and take action if someone’s level of absence is not acceptable as outlined in that policy.

Most short-term absence is managed via a series of meetings and, if necessary, warnings that are generated by someone hitting a certain trigger. This can be the number of periods of sickness in a given time period or sometimes through measurement tools such as the Bradford Factor that give employees a score for their attendance and when that score hits a level as defined in a policy this triggers a formal meeting.

The intention and hope behind these meetings, and warnings, is to establish if there is any underlying reason for the persistent absence – whether health or work related. It is then a case of working with the employee to help them to attend work more often but making it very clear that the current level of absence cannot be supported by the business and it needs to improve. The ultimate outcome of course can be dismissal, but in my many years of experience this is actually quite rare. Once someone is aware that their absence is being tracked and that the business does want to support them but equally will take action, then most people do improve or make their own decision to leave the business.

“What if I think they are ‘pulling a sickie?”

This is a very common question we hear when someone comes to us for advice on persistent absence, usually short term. The simple answer is that, unless you have evidence to show that this is the case, then you need to manage the situation on the basis that it is genuine. The classic examples are someone who has called in sick with back pain and cannot move, and is then seen out running that very evening, or is very ill but then posts pictures on social media of them doing something contrary to this! Even with what you may feel is a clear case of someone not being truthful, I urge you to take advice. If this were the case then it is a disciplinary issue, not absence, and would be dealt with very differently.

In the absence of any such evidence then you need to follow your policy for managing short-term absence and, if needs be, issue a series of warnings that ultimately can lead to dismissal. As mentioned above, this is quite rare as once people know you are managing them they make their own decision to either stop it or move on to an employer that does not have such good management in place.

Note: Due to the nature of the complexities of employment law, I would like to say that, whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information provided here, nothing in this article should be relied on as a statement of absolute fact. This is especially true of any legal information. The law is constantly changing so please do take advice before managing absence. I cannot accept any responsibility for any harm or loss caused, directly or indirectly, as a result of the use of this article.



Emma Wynne Character
Written by:
Emma Wynne
Managing Director