How a robust absence policy can combat a ‘sick note’ culture

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The Government recently announced new plans to combat the UK’s sick note culture as it tries to return more people to the workplace. In this article, I cover how a robust absence policy can help small businesses suffering from high levels of sick leave.

In April 2024 Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced new welfare plans aimed at tackling a significant rise in workers being unnecessarily moved into welfare. According to the UK Government, data from the NHS revealed that nearly 11 million fit notes were issued in 2023, with 94% stating “not fit for work”. Many of these notes were issued without a proper consultation to support people staying at work.

To address the issue, the PM wants to review the current fit note system and focus on what people can do rather than simply putting them on benefits. The plans will also look into removing the responsibility from under-pressure GPs to specialist occupational health professionals who can conduct a thorough and objective assessment.

Why do businesses need an absence policy?

The best medicine for businesses with a “sick note” culture is a robust and legal absence policy. Firstly, it’s important to recognise that while some employees may misuse sick leave, many genuinely suffer health issues. The key is to have procedures in place to manage sickness and support those who are genuinely unwell.

Ensure your absence policy is communicated to all employees so they understand the expectations and procedures. This policy should outline three key areas:

  • How employees report their absence
  • The requirement for medical certificates after a certain period (e.g. seven days)
  • The process for returning to work, including meetings or documentation.

Should employers conduct a medical assessment?

When an employee is absent for an extended period, the employer should arrange a medical assessment to determine their condition and the expected duration of their absence. Before requesting a medical report, you must obtain the employee’s written consent explaining why the report is needed and how it will be used.

An assessment can be arranged with the employee’s GP or another specialist. In some cases, an independent medical examination may be more appropriate. Ensure that all medical information is kept confidential and only shared with those who need to know for legitimate business reasons.

The importance of occupational health referrals

Occupational health services are crucial to managing absence as they provide impartial advice on an employee’s fitness for work and reasonable adjustments. The absence policy should set out a clear process for referring employees to occupational health consultants, such as an absence level threshold or specific health conditions.

Provide occupational health professionals with detailed information about the employee’s role and your concerns. Following the assessment, arrange a meeting with the employee to discuss the recommendations such as adjustments to their role, a phased return to work, or other support.

Supporting staff return to work

A successful return-to-work strategy is vital for reintegrating employees after a period of absence. Employers should consider conducting return-to-work interviews to understand the reasons for the absence and potential reasonable adjustments to the employee’s role or work environment. Common adjustments include flexible working, changes to duties and additional equipment.

Need advice on enforcing an absence policy?

As an experienced HR consultant, I have years of experience helping businesses manage absenteeism while maintaining a supportive environment for employees. Reviewing absence data enables businesses to identify trends, problem areas (e.g. departments or times of year) and employees with frequent short-term absences.

When necessary, I help clients start disciplinary procedures for cases of suspected misuse of sick leave. Remember, each case is unique, and the key is to handle each situation with empathy and professionalism. If you need further assistance, feel free to contact me today.

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