Attendance Management

by Kate Russell

In a nutshell

1. Absence

The cost of absence is not simply reflected in extra costs to the organisation’s sick pay scheme. Other costs include the following:

  • Unnecessarily high staffing levels and overtime payments
  • Replacement labour
  • Delayed production
  • Management time
  • Lower quality or levels of service
  • Disruption of the flow of work
  • Low morale and general dissatisfaction, resulting in low productivity.

Unauthorised absence should be dealt with through the disciplinary process as it is a misconduct matter. There are, however, many legitimate reasons why an employee might be absent.

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2. Consider prevention as well as cure

If employees are motivated, interested in their work, feel that they are being fairly and equitably treated and fairly rewarded, that their organisation is a good place to work and they have a sense of involvement, they are less likely to be absent. Various measures can be taken to prevent high absence levels:

  • Improving workplace conditions
  • Making sure supervisors take an interest in employees’ health
  • Free confidential counselling
  • Better health and safety training and maintenance.

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3. Absence management procedure

Managing absence is unpopular with line managers and it does require some effort. The good news is that consistent effort will bring about and maintain improvements.

  • When an employee calls in sick, take down as much information as possible and keep a record.
  • Many companies have formal triggers – such as more than three periods of absence in a six-month period.
  • Persistent short-term offenders are the most disruptive for the business.
  • The Bradford Factor can be a useful way of identifying short-term offenders.
  • When giving informal counselling or a formal warning, a line manager must be specific and crystal clear about the improvement required.

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4. A sample procedure

To avoid confusion and disputes, it is sensible to have a clear-cut written procedure for absence management. This sample procedure does the following:

  • Makes it clear that all health information will be treated confidentially
  • Defines what will be regarded as short-term absence
  • Establishes a three-stage procedure for dealing with short-term absence
  • Establishes that if there is no improvement after the three-stage procedure has been followed, termination of employment or other possibilities will be considered
  • Makes clear that a welfare approach will be taken to long-term absence and any measures taken will be in accordance with the Equality Act 2010
  • Explains the necessity for and nature of a return-to-work interview
  • Explains how cases will be handled where recovery is incomplete or cannot be expected.

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5. Keeping records

You must have a system for recording absence, otherwise it will be impossible to measure specific types, such as long-term sickness absence, and you will be unable to manage the situation effectively.

  • Employers are required to keep records of SSP for HMRC.
  • Good record keeping facilitates an objective analysis of absence levels.
  • Methods of measuring absence include measuring the total time lost, calculating the average number of spells of absence per employee and monitoring the individual frequency rate.
  • The Data Protection Act makes it clear that reasons for sickness absence should be treated as sensitive personal data.
  • Employers should only collect such information if the employee has freely consented or to comply with the legal obligations.
  • Make sure that reporting procedures are known to all concerned and are followed.

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6. Return-to-work meetings

Return-to-work meetings are one of the most effective ways of reducing persistent short-term sickness and can help identify short-term absence problems at an early stage. They also provide managers with an opportunity to start a dialogue with staff over underlying issues which might be causing the absence.

  • Many managers fail to realise how productive and useful a well-conducted return-to-work interview can be.
  • Use the meeting to complete or sign off any self-certification forms or to collect a doctor’s certificate.
  • Hold the meeting in private.
  • For employees with a good attendance record, welcome them, discuss any help they might need, bring them up to date and praise them.
  • Also check they are not coming back too soon.
  • Where there are concerns, welcome them, discuss the attendance record, make clear any improvements expected (being specific), agree action and set a timescale for review.

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7. Medical advice

Getting clear medical advice can be a real challenge. Doctors are often very protective of their patients and are concerned that you’re trying to dismiss them (it doesn’t help that they’re often given a very subjective and one-sided view by the employee).

  • The best way to tackle it is to demonstrate that you are interested in taking all reasonable steps to encourage and ensure the employee’s continued attendance at work. If you propose to contact the employee’s own doctor or a medical advisor who has been treating him, you will need written permission from the employee to do so.
  • If it is written into the contract of employment (and this is common), you can require the employee to see an organisation nominated medical or health advisor
  • The Access to Medical Reports Act 1988 allows a person to have access to a medical report about him if his own doctor prepares it.
  • From 6 April 2010, Med3 statements of fitness for work (known colloquially as ‘fit notes’) replaced sick notes. Fit notes allow doctors to state that an employee ‘may be fit for work taking account of the following advice’ (with the focus being on what the employee can do), rather than being able to declare him only ‘fit’ or ‘unfit for all work’ as with sick notes.
  • It is common in ill-health cases for there to be conflicting advice on the prognosis for an employee’s return to work; employers can resolve this conflict by preferring one opinion over another, as long as they have reasonable grounds to explain their choice.

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8. Introduction to SSP

Statutory Sick pay (SSP) is paid by the employer for up to a maximum of 28 weeks, and in the same way and at the same time as an employee’s normal wages. If SSP ends, an employee can claim Incapacity Benefit. To receive SSP an employee must be:

  • Sick for at least four or more days in a row (including weekends and bank holidays); this is known as a Period of Incapacity for Work
  • Earning, before tax and National Insurance, an amount equalling or exceeding the LEL (Lower Earnings Level).
  • From 1 October 2006, any qualifying employee receives SSP.
  • Where a Period of Incapacity for Work (PIW) is separated from an earlier PIW by eight weeks (that is 56 days) or less, the two absences ‘link’ and are treated as one PIW.

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9. Dealing with persistent short-term absence

Employers need to distinguish between absences where there is no underlying medical condition (often manifesting as short-term absences) and where there is an underlying medical condition. The latter would be treated as a capability issue.

When the absence reaches unacceptable levels (for example, a Bradford Factor trigger point is reached) speak to the employee informally in the first instance and set a time for an improvement in performance.

  • An employee may accuse you of picking on him because he is sick. However, your concern is with his low attendance levels rather than his sickness.
  • If there is an underlying medical reason for the absences, use the long-term absence procedure.
  • If not, and there is no improvement, the absence problem is often treated as a form of misconduct, and dealt with according to the organisation’s disciplinary procedure.
  • Ultimately, dismissal is for a failure to reach a reasonable level of attendance, not about whether the individual was genuinely ill or not.

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10. Long-term sickness absence

Sickness absence where there is an underlying medical reason linking the absences will be treated as a capability matter. You can fairly dismiss an employee who has health problems, even if he is suffering from a disability, but you must take all reasonable steps to adjust the work and the workplace in order to accommodate the disability.

  • In reaching a decision to dismiss, the organisation’s capability or dismissal procedures must be followed and employers must ensure that these procedures comply with the statutory minimum procedures.
  • If, however, the absences are unauthorised and there is no medical condition, it is more likely the reason for dismissal will be conduct.
  • The action taken must always be within the band of reasonable responses.
  • Keeping in contact is a key factor in helping employees return to work after a long-term absence.
  • You must consider all options, such as changes to the job or additional equipment.
  • The key is to involve and consult the employee at all stages.

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11. Workplace stress

The risks to an employer of not dealing with workplace stress include:

  • Breach of the health and safety legislation
  • Constructive unfair dismissal claims
  • Disability discrimination claims
  • Personal injury.

Historically, it has been very difficult for an employee to claim damages for psychiatric injury against their employer, as it was necessary to show that such psychiatric injury was reasonably foreseeable.

  • The first case in which an employee successfully claimed against his employer was Walker v Northumberland County Council.
  • In 2002, the Court of Appeal made it clear that the same principles apply to stress claims as to ordinary industrial accidents: it is necessary to show that the kind of harm suffered by the particular employee was reasonably foreseeable.
  • The employee must show that a breach of duty committed by the employer caused, or materially contributed to, the harm suffered.
  • As an employer, there are various measures you can take to reduce the risk.

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12. Case study — return-to-work programme

‘Return to Work’ is a programme, run by employee assistance provider ICAS, originating in Australia, where the organisation achieved an 86 per cent success rate in getting employees with depression back into work, within an average of four weeks.

  • The problem is identified.
  • A member of the ICAS team meets with the employee to assess the situation.
  • Together they create a step-by-step plan, liaising with the doctor and organising therapy.
  • A plan for a return to work is developed, which includes making sure the right support is given.

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