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How to deal with sickness absence

Employment law specialists Peninsula explain what practices should do to manage absence among their employees.

Practices should have a policy for dealing with absence and apply it consistently (Picture: iStock)
Practices should have a policy for dealing with absence and apply it consistently (Picture: iStock)

The average employee has 5.5 days of sickness absence per year. Multiply that by the number of employees in your practice and it is probably a significant amount of sickness absence in one year.

This is time for which you have to organise extra cover, spread work out among the remaining staff, spend time calculating sick pay and deal with correspondence relating to the sick employee.

Genuine sickness absence is part and parcel of a normal workplace simply because people get sick - a fact that those who work in general practice are all too familiar with.

It is not possible to completely dispense of the time you spend on the administration that sick employees create but it is possible to implement procedures that could significantly reduce it by targeting suspected abuses of sickness absence.

Preventive measures

Even genuine cases of absence could be reduced by putting into place preventive measures.

There are certain times of the year where you might see your absence level increasing – for example, during key sporting events like international football tournaments, the Christmas Party season and of course, when the weather is nice.  A sunny day may easily work to exaggerate the symptoms of slight cold or minor headache.

These are the types of sickness absence that you could look to reduce by consistently keeping records of sickness absence and making employees aware that no absence will be left unregistered.

Records will allow you to spot any patterns that may emerge. Without monitoring sickness you won’t spot that employee who regularly phones in sick on a Thursday when you know that a couple of the admin staff always go for drinks on a Wednesday night.

Return to work interview

Absence should always be followed up with a return to work interview where you speak privately to the employee when they come back to work.

You should seek information on the reason for the absence and whether they visited their doctor, or took any other action to overcome their illness. Knowing that they will have to explain themselves to you personally may be enough to deter any spurious instances of absence. 

These interviews should be carried out even after a single day’s absence – employees may take advantage where there is inconsistency and absence is ignored.

Dealing with persistent absence

Persistent absence, at whatever time of year, can amount to a disciplinary offence and your disciplinary procedure should cover this.

Some absence monitoring methods work by setting a trigger point, for example the ‘Bradford Factor’, where disciplinary action will be instigated once an employee’s absence levels have reached the ‘trigger’.

Several single day absences will result in the employee reaching the trigger point much quicker than fewer instances of long periods of absence, even though the number of days of absence is the same.

Longer periods of absence are often experienced when the complaint is stress and depression. Clearly some job positions are linked with a more highly pressurised environment than others and stress is commonly seen among staff in the NHS.

Where absence becomes long term, it is useful to refer the employee to an occupational health specialist who is able to give a prognosis as to the employee’s chances of returning to work.

If the reason for absence is classed as a disability, the Equality Act 2010 requires that employers look at any reasonable adjustments that can be made to enable the employee to perform his role. Ultimately, if an employee cannot perform their role because of their illness, dismissal is an option but this must not be done without specific advice.

Finally, Employee Assistance Programmes are designed to offer telephone or face-to-face counselling support to employees on a wide range of issues from money to stress to childcare. The counselling offered could prove invaluable to an employee who may be able to resolve issues in this way rather than falling into the trap of thinking that time off is the answer.

  • Peninsula is a UK-wide employment law and health and safety consultancy, who regularly advise GP practices on these matters. For more information click here.

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