Occupational Health

by Anna Harrington

Absence/attendance policy

The effective management of attendance and sickness absence will require a multi-interventional strategic approach. It is not just about how to return someone back into work after a long period off sick, but about collecting and analysing quantitative and qualitative data to give a picture of attendance. It is also about creating a workplace that encourages attendance and productivity – this can be through incentives and/or about considering the culture of the organisation and how it affects mental and social health.

Absence policies are sometimes known as attendance policies as a way of switching thinking towards a positive framework. Examples of policies are on the CIPD website, where there is an absence management tool.

The purpose of the policy is to set out the organisation’s expectations with regards to attendance (standards of attendance) and the procedures that need to be used to deal with non-attendance. It should detail roles and responsibilities of employees, line mangers, human resources and others, such as occupational health and employee assistance services. It needs to state what competencies it expects line managers to acquire and how it will assist them in attaining these competencies, for example by giving training in promoting attendance or managing sickness absence.

Standards of attendance

The standards of attendance should state

  • That the organisation pays the employees to attend work. They accept that it is the norm to have occasions when attendance is not possible; in these situations it wants to do all it can to encourage and facilitate attendance and productivity
  • Non-attendance affects the team as well as the individual and his/her family, and costs the organisation money
  • For those who are absent, the organisation will provide support and assistance to aid a timely return to work and full capabilities.

Responsibilities

Absence policy procedures need to include details on the responsibilities of the employee, line managers, human resources and occupational health:

Employees

The implementation of a sickness absence policy has to be consistent for it to have a smooth effect across the whole of an organisation. The policy should make the following information clear to employees:

  • How and whom the employee should contact if unable to attend work
  • What information they need to give and when, especially in relation to certification, and timescales
  • How the organisation will remain in contact with the employee
  • What procedures –work risk assessments, occupational health and capability assessments –are in place to facilitate a safe and speedy return to work
  • The arrangements that the organisation may make for a medical examination for the purpose of aiding a safe return to work
  • The organisation expects the employee to permit the employer to receive a report from the medical examiner and failure to do so may result in disciplinary action and dismissal
  • Details of any ‘trigger points’ and the consequences of hitting these
  • The organisation expects the employee to attend a return-to-work interview.

Line managers

The duties of line managers should also be made clear. They are to

  • Encourage good attendance
  • Assist the organisation in managing sickness absence by implementing the policy requirements in a consistent and fair manner
  • Collate absence data and forward this to the central collecting point (usually human resources)
  • Ensure competence in promoting attendance and managing sickness absence.
  • Have positive contact with employees who require an extended period of absence
  • Conduct return-to-work interviews
  • Follow procedure with any employee who hits the trigger points
  • Refer to occupational health on guidance from the human resources team
  • Communicate positively between all parties, such as occupational health or employment disability advisors, who are involved in returning an individual back to work
  • Discuss performance and attendance at appraisal interviews
  • Be aware of the legal and disciplinary context of the absence.

Human resources

The duties of HR are

  • To ensure that all line managers are aware of their responsibilities under the absence scheme and are capable of carrying out their role
  • To work with line managers to assist in achieving good attendance and managing sickness absence well
  • To work with all interested parties such as staff representation, the senior management team and line managers to develop ‘trigger points’ and procedures for an employee who hits them
  • To collate, analyse and report on absence data
  • To have effective recruitment and selection procedures that consider employees’ abilities in relation to the job they are expected to do, aiming to enable individual’s to achieve their objectives
  • To have positive communications with all involved in returning an employee back to work
  • To work with the organisation to develop and implement policies, such as performance and rewards/incentives, flexible working and special leave, which may assist in achieving good attendance.

Occupational health

  • See any referred employee in a timely fashion
  • Communicate positively in written and verbal form with all involved in returning an individual back to work
  • Assist the organisation develop work practices and policies which promote attendance such as job design, recruitment and selection, the encouragement of mental wellbeing
  • Alert the organisation of any hazards which may cause harm to employees
  • Assist the organisation to control and manage these hazards
  • Assist in the promotion of physical and mental wellbeing.

It is also necessary to include any details about the organisation’s occupational sick pay (if any), when would it apply, for how long and how much.

Return-to-work interviews

The line manager needs to follow the organisation’s absence management policy. This should include conducting return-to-work interviews after all occurrences. The purpose is to understand the reason for the absence, and to implement changes to overcome the barriers. It is likely that the line manager will require training in conducting effective return-to-work interviews. For more, see Return-to-work meetings in the Attendance Management topic.

It is desirable that the employee feels able to be honest and open with the line manager. The interview style should be frank, open, fair, non-judgemental, positive and constructive. The manager, while offering support and assistance, needs to also state the affect the absence has on the organisation and individual’s colleagues and the consequences if it continues.

The manager needs to be aware that some types of absences have causes which the individual themselves may not recognise, such as poor motivation or a mismatch between personal values and the organisational culture.

Use of occupational health

Referral to occupational health could be beneficial as a method of exploring the reasons for the absences. It gives the employee an opportunity to talk in confidence to a medical professional, who will have some understanding of the workplace and possible health problems, and offers a chance to explore wider issues, such as social circumstances, work motivation and work relationships.

Occupational health professionals should never be used as a punitive consequence for absence, as this undermines their effectiveness and the trust they are able to create with employees.

Referral to occupational health needs to be prompt. There should be an appropriate form, which should include the employee’s written informed consent to the medical examination. A report should be issued to the referring person and possibly human resources. The referral should contain the following information:

  • Why the person is being referred
  • What circumstances have led up to this referral (sickness absence data, management concerns, for example)
  • What their job is and where they work (it’s a good idea to include the job description)
  • On what, specifically, management want an opinion.

Contacting the General Practitioner or other medical professionals

The line manager can request information from the doctor to investigate an underlying health cause and seek ways to enable an improvement in attendance (see Medical advice, in Attendance Management).

Disciplinary action

If, after a thorough investigation and implementation of solutions, it may be necessary to begin a disciplinary process, this will come down to a matter of justifiable and objective judgement by the line manager and human resources as to the appropriateness of using disciplinary action. This will require experience and wisdom.

Genuine illness must not be treated with disciplinary action, but the associated absence may still result in employment being terminated on grounds of ill-health or capability.

Before undertaking disciplinary action, it must be agreed that a full investigation of the problem has been undertaken, to avoid the organisation being accused of being discriminatory or unfair. In particular, it’s important to establish if the reasons are due to a health problem or not, as the processes for dismissal are different. If there isn’t an underlying health cause, then dismissal can occur on the grounds of misconduct due to poor attendance.