Sickness Absence Management: A Guide for Managers

Sickness absence management: a small black board with I'm on sick leave written on it

Sickness absence management stands out as a concern for many businesses. 1 in 4 employers based in Scotland have seen an increase in employees being off sick compared to last year. Frequent absences may have significant impacts on team morale and productivity. Other employees will be put under further pressure to cover the absent employee workload.

How should your business be responding to absent employees and how to structure sickness absence management within your business? Having a support system that is unbiased and follows the correct procedures in line with employment laws.

Understanding Sickness Absence Management

At its foundation sickness absence management can merely be a task of counting the days the employee takes off. However, there needs to be a deeper understanding of why employees are absent from work.

The aim of sickness absence management is to provide essential support to affected employees and align solutions with company morale and objectives.

Steps to Effective Sickness Absence Management

Implement a Clear Attendance Policy

All companies should have an attendance policy within their employee handbook.

The attendance policy must outline the expectations of employees in relation to absences and the potential consequences with frequent absences. This may also be known as the absence and timekeeping policy, communicating this to employees is critical to ensure it is adhered to. How the policy is enforced across the board must have consistency throughout, ensuring to have fairness and transparency in procedures.

Check out how to write a time and absence keeping policy.

Review Attendance Records

Managers should start by reviewing attendance records prior to holding any discussions or interviews with employees. This ensures they have a clear picture of the employee’s history of absenteeism. Having accurate records of absences is critical in this step, the records will provide insights and serve as evidence during the meetings.

The Role of Return-to-Work Interviews

Conducting a return-to-work interview is a simple and valuable tool to reducing absenteeism. The interview helps employers and managers to gain insights to why the employee has been absent from work. Employers/Managers have the opportunity to discuss if additional support or reasonable adjustments are required for the employee moving forward.

Having a return to work interview as part of your sickness absence management process, helps to reduce absenteeism as employees are less likely to pull a sickie.

Seek Expertise from HR consultants

Have you identified a pattern in the employee’s absence? Disciplinary action may be required. Consulting with an HR consultant prior to taking action ensures any actions the company takes are following the correct procedures in line with employment laws.

HR consultants will provide guidance and further insight into the situation, giving you the risks associated with any decisions. They will advise on if they feel you are being harsh or if any investigations are required.

Training employees:

Knowledge is key; organizing training sessions can bring awareness to the importance of good attendance at work. The training can be an eye-opener for all employees.

It should bring an understanding of the broader implications of employees’ repeated absences, such as increased pressure and lower morale for co-workers. If employees understand the full impact of their absence.

 Flexibility as a Solution:

Flexibility within a company can be a game-changer in reducing absenteeism. If an employee has more control over their work schedule, fitting work in around their lifestyle may lead to reducing absenteeism. Flexibility in where and when they work can be helpful, if someone has a medical condition, they can schedule appointments more easily.

Short-term sickness absence

Short-term absences whilst brief may still have cumulative impacts on a company’s productivity and morale; especially within a stressful environment. Taking a proactive approach helps in addressing the issues and reducing them.

Following the company’s absence policy is the first step for all absences, the policy will outline the reporting and documentation procedures for short-term sickness absence.

You may feel brief absences don’t require a return-to-work interview, they may be instrumental in highlighting any recurring issues or patterns in absences i.e. Mondays off on multiple occasions.

It is important throughout the interview there is open communication, helping employers to get to the root causes of short-term absence and whether there is any support they can offer.

Additionally, fostering a positive workplace culture that emphasises employee well-being can deter unwarranted short-term absences. By implementing these strategies, businesses can ensure a harmonious balance between supporting employee health and maintaining operational efficiency.

Managing long-term sickness absence

Addressing long-term sickness absence in the workplace is both a delicate and crucial aspect of sickness absence management.

Employers must strike a balance between demonstrating genuine concern for the well-being of the affected employee and ensuring the smooth operation of the business. To manage this effectively, companies must have a clear and compassionate absence policy already in place. Remember, communicating this policy to new employees is essential for it to have an impact.

This policy should outline the process for reporting extended absences, the documentation required, and the support mechanisms available.  Regular communication with the absent employee is key, not only to understand their medical status but also to convey the company’s support.

Additionally, considering flexible work arrangements or phased returns can be beneficial. By integrating these practices, businesses can foster a supportive environment that prioritises employee well-being while maintaining productivity.

What should be included in a sickness absence policy?

A sickness policy statement is a concise declaration that outlines a company’s stance and approach towards sickness and absence due to illness. It serves as an introduction to the more detailed sickness absence policy, providing a clear overview of the company’s commitment to managing and supporting employees during periods of illness.

A sickness policy statement example;

At [Company Name], we recognise the importance of the health and well-being of all our employees. We understand that there will be times when employees are unable to attend work due to illness. Our sickness policy aims to support employees during such times, ensuring they receive the necessary care and assistance while maintaining the operational efficiency of the company.

We are committed to providing a fair and consistent approach to sickness absence, ensuring that all employees are treated with dignity and respect.

This policy outlines the procedures for reporting sickness, the support available to employees, and the steps we take to facilitate a smooth return to work. We encourage open communication and urge employees to familiarise themselves with the details of our sickness absence policy.

This statement sets the tone for the company’s approach to sickness absence and provides a foundation for the more detailed procedures and guidelines that follow in the full policy.

A sickness absence policy provides a clear framework for both employees and employers on how to handle sickness-related absences.

Example of Sickness Absence Policy

Purpose and Scope:

A brief introduction explaining the reason for the policy and to whom it applies.


Clear definitions of terms used within the policy, such as “short-term absence,” “long-term absence,” “unauthorized absence,” etc.

Reporting Procedures:

Detailed steps on how an employee should report sickness absence, including whom to notify, when, and how.

Information on any documentation required, such as self-certification forms or medical certificates.

Return-to-Work Interviews:

Explanation of the process and purpose of return-to-work interviews after an absence.

Payment During Absence:

Information on statutory sick pay (SSP) or any company-specific sick pay, including eligibility criteria and duration.

Support and Adjustments:

Details on the support available to employees, such as occupational health assessments, counselling services, or Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs).

Information on potential workplace adjustments or accommodations for those returning from sickness absence.

Managing Frequent or Long-Term Absences:

Procedures for addressing frequent short-term absences or extended long-term absences, including potential medical assessments or reviews.

Information on phased returns, flexible working arrangements, or potential redeployment.


Assurance that all medical information and absence records will be kept confidential and only shared with relevant parties on a need-to-know basis.

Disciplinary Procedures:

Explanation of circumstances under which sickness absence may lead to disciplinary action, ensuring it’s handled fairly and consistently.

Details on the process and potential outcomes of such actions.

Appeals Process:

Information on how employees can appeal decisions related to their sickness absence, including the steps involved and timeframes.

Roles and Responsibilities:

Outline the responsibilities of employees, line managers, HR, and any other relevant parties in the sickness absence process.

Monitoring and Review:

Statement on how the organization will monitor sickness absence rates and the effectiveness of the policy.

Information on how and when the policy will be reviewed and updated.

Training and Awareness:

Details on training provided to managers and staff regarding the policy and its implementation.

Legal and Regulatory Compliance:

Mention of any legal or regulatory guidelines that the policy adheres to, ensuring compliance with employment laws.

A well-structured sickness absence policy not only ensures consistency and fairness in managing absences but also provides employees with a clear understanding of their rights and responsibilities.

How many sickness days is acceptable.

In the UK, there isn’t a fixed “acceptable” number of sickness days. However, the average number of sickness absence days taken by UK workers can serve as a benchmark. As of recent data, the average is around 4-6 days per year. Employers should be understanding of genuine illness but can have procedures in place for frequent absences.

What are the trigger points for sickness absence?

Trigger points for sickness absence are typically set by individual employers in the UK. Common triggers might include:

  • A certain number of absences in a rolling period (e.g., 3 instances in 6 months).
  • A specific number of consecutive days absent (e.g., more than 10 consecutive days).
  • Patterns of absence, such as frequent Monday or Friday absences.

Does an employee have to give a reason for sickness?

In the UK, if an employee is sick and off work for seven days or less, they can self-certify their absence. If they’re off work for more than seven days, they’ll likely need to provide a ‘fit note’ from a doctor.

While employees should inform their employer of the reason for their sickness, they don’t necessarily have to provide in-depth medical details.

What should I ask an employee in a sickness absence meeting?

During a sickness absence meeting in the UK, consider asking:

  • How are you feeling now?
  • Is there any support or adjustment you might need upon your return?
  • Are there any underlying issues or concerns we should be aware of?
  • Is this absence related to a previously disclosed condition or illness?
  • How can we assist in ensuring a smooth transition back to work?

What is the biggest cause of sickness absence in the UK?

Historically, minor illnesses like coughs and colds have been the most common cause of short-term sickness absence. However, in recent years, mental health issues, including stress, depression, and anxiety, have become significant contributors to both short-term and long-term absences.

What is the average sickness absence in the UK?

The average sickness absence rate in the UK, as of recent data, is around 4-6 days per employee per year.

Key Takeaways

  1. Sickness absence management is crucial for businesses, with 1 in 4 employers in Scotland seeing an increase in sick leaves.
  2. The foundation of sickness absence management is not just counting days but understanding the reasons behind absences.
  3. Companies should have a clear attendance policy and ensure it is communicated and enforced consistently.
  4. Managers should review attendance records before discussing absences with employees.
  5. Return-to-work interviews are valuable tools for understanding and reducing absenteeism.
  6. HR consultants can provide guidance on disciplinary actions and ensure compliance with employment laws.
  7. Training sessions can raise awareness about the importance of good attendance.
  8. Flexibility in work schedules can reduce absenteeism.
  9. Both short-term and long-term absences have their challenges and require different management approaches.
  10. A well-structured sickness absence policy ensures consistency and clarity for both employees and employers.
  11. In the UK, there isn’t a fixed “acceptable” number of sickness days, but the average is around 4-6 days per year.
  12. Mental health issues have become significant contributors to both short-term and long-term absences in the UK.
  13. A proactive and empathetic approach to sickness absence management can ensure both productivity and employee satisfaction.

Sickness absence management is a delicate balance. It requires businesses to balance their operational needs with the well-being of their employees.

By adopting a proactive and empathetic approach, companies can create a supportive work environment, ensuring both productivity and employee satisfaction.

Don’t have a sickness absence management procedure? Our HR consultants can provide you with further information on how to develop this within your business and reduce absences in the workplace. As well as, ensuring businesses aren’t leaving themselves liable for tribunal claims by following incorrect procedures.

Contact HR Consultants

Please fill out your details below and a member of our team will get in touch with you.