How to handle staff who frequently take sick leave?

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“What can I do about my high rate of sick leave?” This was a problem facing one of my clients whose business had a horrendous sickness absence record. I discovered that employees had simply gotten away with taking sick leave as there were no procedures in place, such as return-to-work interviews. My client was afraid of taking action as they were worried about replacing dismissed staff, leading to a talent shortage. So how can you tackle issues around sick leave without hurting your business? Read on to find out more…

How robust are your sick pay procedures?

Regular absences can lead you to suspect that someone might not have a genuine illness. If you want to go down the road of proving they are not being truthful, first you need to ensure your sickness procedures are watertight. For example, some businesses choose to pay statutory sick pay (SSP) to staff to discourage frequent sick leave. Employees are eligible for SSP after four days of absence, while the rate is low (£99.35 per week) and limited to 28 weeks. However, businesses often offer enhanced sick pay to retain and attract staff, so SSP is not always the best option. Withholding sick pay when you suspect an employee of lying is not recommended. Proving your case will be difficult and will potentially leave you open to claims for unlawful deduction of wages, constructive unfair dismissal and/or discrimination. Some companies reward staff for good attendance, such as an extra payment or day off. However, this needs to be handled carefully as it could risk disability discrimination claims, while upsetting those with genuine illnesses.

Collect and review evidence Keeping accurate attendance records is the first step to assessing whether the sick leave is legitimate. By plotting absences, you might notice a pattern if someone is off regularly on Mondays or on busy days. Recording the reasons for sickness will add to the evidence, so arrange return-to-work interviews following every sickness period. This can help you spot issues earlier, while letting staff know that their sickness absences will be closely monitored.

Is the employee fit to do the job? If you find someone having frequent sick leave, this will either be a conduct or capability issue. Lying about their absence is poor conduct, while a genuine illness can lead to fears about someone’s capability to do the job. For the latter, you can start a capability process which begins with a meeting with the employee to discuss their sick leave and health issues. You can arrange for a medical report from a GP or occupational health professional to diagnose any genuine health problems. Once you have the medical evidence, you can then make decisions on making reasonable adjustments in the workplace or dealing with the absences. If you have evidence that it is not a genuine illness, then begin disciplinary action potentially ending in the dismissal of the individual. This process will also allow time to recruit for replacements as you will know when someone is approaching the point of being dismissed.

What happened with my client? It was time to put a stop to the amount of sick leave being taken, so I helped to introduce new absence policies and procedures. This set a new standard throughout the organisation and informed the line managers how to deal with future issues. I also helped the company to adopt the Bradford factor — an absence-oriented key performance indicator (KPI). This highlights short-term absences, which are more disruptive than planned holiday time.  Used effectively, the Bradford Factor can undoubtedly reduce absenteeism and serve as a deterrent to persistent offenders. Analysis and consideration of each individual case is essential as The Bradford Factor doesn’t take into account the underlying reasons for employee absences so it should never be used as a stand-alone tool. These actions have resulted in 20 disciplinary hearings as employees hit trigger points in the new absence process. The results ranged from first verbal warnings to dismissal.

Need advice? Dealing with issues around sick leave is never straightforward, so businesses should seek professional advice. JT HRConsultancy is an established HR services company based in Bedfordshire with clients across the UK. If you need help of advice on an employment issue, call me on 07715 026128 or email

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