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Absence Management guide

This guide expands on the details contained in the Absence Policy and gives you practical advice on how to deal with difficult or complex areas of absence management.

Absence management policy

It is crucial for every business to implement a consistent absence management policy, as this minimises sickness and unauthorised absences.

This will need to include:

  • Maintenance of accurate absence records 
  • A return to work interview for absences other than holidays.

We would advise you to implement a ‘trigger’ system for monitoring absences and make sure your employees understand the rules surrounding absence levels. An example of this could be that employees will be formally interviewed after 3 periods of absence in the previous rolling 12 month period and encouraged to improve. Further absence may then lead to formal investigation under the disciplinary procedure, or investigation through the company’s medical advisers.

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Handling long term sickness absence

Contact with your employee

It is your responsibility as an employer to maintain contact with employees who are absent from work due to sickness. If the absence is likely to last more than 4 weeks, we recommend the following procedure:

  • Initial telephone call 
  • Face to face meeting (either at work or with your permission, at the employee’s home)
  • If the employee is not well enough to attend a meeting, contact can be maintained either by letter, by someone acting as advocate, or by pre-arranged telephone calls.

Meeting notes should be made on every time you have contact with the employee. When meeting face to face, we would recommend you to have another company representative (ideally, the same sex as the employee) present to take notes.

You should cover the following issues when making contact with the employee:

  • Reason for their absence
  • What treatment is being received
  • Who is providing medical opinion, ie, doctor/consultant
  • Estimated return to work date

Medical information

When assessing when or if an employee is going to be fit to return to work, it is important to seek an accurate and up-to-date medical opinion.

It is best to obtain medical advice through an Occupational Health doctor, as they will be able to liaise with the employee’s GP or consultant. Most Occupational Health Practices will also deal with the issue of gaining the employee’s consent for their GP or hospital consultant to be approached for a medical report.

If you instead wish to write directly to the employee’s GP for a medical report, you are required to get the written consent of the employee, as provided for under the specific rules in the Access to Medical Reports Act 1988.

To obtain medical information, you will need to:

  • Contact the employee using a Request for Consent letter and send this along with a Medical Consent form and the Employee Guidance Notes
  • Once consent has been given, take a photocopy of the signed form and send it to the relevant doctor/consultant 
  • If the employee has requested to see the report before it is forwarded to you, advise them that you have requested the report.

Arrange to meet with the employee to discuss the medical report with a view to agreeing and planning a return to work. More information on this is covered in the reasonable adjustments section further down this page.

If an employee refuses to give consent to access their medical report, which is their right, contact Empire for advice, as you would then have to make a decision regarding the employee’s return to work, based on the on the information gained from your contact with them.

Empire can provide you with the documentation you need to gain medical consent. Our advisors can also give you advice on how to deal with the potential return to work, once the medical report has been received.

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Equality Act 2010

In some cases the medical condition may fall within the definition of “disability” under the Equality Act 2010. The definition is “a mental or physical impairment which substantially and adversely affects normal day to day activities in the long term.” In the “long term” usually means lasting or likely to last 12 months or more, or it is likely to last for the rest of the life of the affected person.

You should obtain medical advice when trying to determine whether a medical condition falls under this Act, as the range of conditions covered by the definition is extremely wide.

Reasonable adjustments

If the condition falls within the definition of a disability as described in the Equality Act, there is a requirement to consider reasonable adjustments to aid the employee’s return to work. Examples of this include:

  • Reduction/change of working hours
  • Provision of equipment, eg lifting equipment (funding/grants may be available via the Job Centre)
  • Alternative work (current vacancies, there is no obligation to create a job)
  • Changing place of work.

You will need to meet with the employee to discuss appropriate reasonable adjustments and document your meeting.

Dismissal on the grounds of capability

If the employee is not likely to be able to return to work in the foreseeable future, a decision to dismiss by reason of capability should be based on the following criteria:

  • Length of absence
  • Expected return date
  • How long can the job reasonably be expected to be held open
  • Lack of success of reasonable adjustments

Before making the decision to dismiss on the grounds of capability, you ought to consider the following risks:

  • To dismiss an employee who is still receiving company sick pay may be seen as an employer acting unreasonably
  • An employee who is eligible for Permanent Health Insurance should not be dismissed
  • Is the employee eligible for an ill-health retirement from the Pension Scheme?
  • If the employee is terminally ill, and there is a life assurance policy in place paying death in service benefit, dismissal of the employee may not be a reasonable route.

It is essential that long term absences are dealt with reasonably, otherwise you could be at risk of a claim for unfair dismissal or disability discrimination.

Disciplinary action

Particular care must be taken with any of the following reasons for absence:

  • Pregnancy-related illness
  • Bereavement
  • Industrial injury 
  • Hospital appointments 
  • Absent due to disability within the family.

This guide should have helped you to understand the basics of how to correctly deal with employee absences, but every situation is different and there are many factors to take into consideration. Our Empire HR advice line team of fully trained advisors are on hand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to give you practical, friendly advice, before you commence any disciplinary action with an employee.

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