When Does Sickness Absence Become Unsatisfactory?

The average number of sickness absence days that UK workers take has almost halved since records began in 1993, Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures have revealed that employees took an average of 4.1 sickness absence days in 2017, compared with 7.2 days in 1993.

Even more interesting is the difference of a massive 8 days a year between the best and worst performing private sector organisations, which dramatically demonstrates that, by following good practice, it is possible to control and minimise the impact of sickness and other forms of absence.

When an employee is taking an unsatisfactory amount of time off work and giving the reason for the absence as sicknee then the first task for the employer is to examine the reasons why the employee is taking time off work.

Common Causes Of Unsatisfactory Absence

Understanding the root cause of the absenteeism will be important. Until the cause is correctly identified, it will not be possible to identify an appropriate course of action to remedy it. Remaining open minded about an employee’s absences, rather than jumping to the conclusion that the employee is taking time off work without good reason, is important as it may be that the cause of the absence is something outside their control.

Some of the most common underlying causes of frequent episodes of short-term absence from work include:

  • An underlying medical condition that flares up from time to time;
  • An unusually high, but genuine, vulnerability to colds, flu, etc;
  • Excessive tiredness, for example because the employee stays out late at night or has a second job;
  • Overwork and long hours, leading to fatigue;
  • Job insecurity;
  • Job content, for example where the job duties are repetitive and boring;
  • Demotivation, which in turn can have a variety of causes;
  • Environmental factors, for example lack of natural light, poor ventilation or cramped conditions;
  • Bullying and harassment or difficult working relationships;
  • Stress;
  • Management style;
  • Poor communication, leading to poor understanding of how individual jobs contribute to the organisation’s objectives;
  • Personal or family problems;
  • Problems with caring responsibilities;
  • Specific problems in the workplace;
  • Inability to establish a satisfactory work-life balance; and
  • Transport problems.

Gathering data on the causes of non-attendance at work is more complex than compiling statistics on the number of days lost to absence. Nevertheless, until the causes that are driving absence are properly identified and understood, it will not be possible to arrive at an effective plan for improving attendance.

When Does Absence Become Unsatisfactory?

Comparing figures for your business with national averages is a useful starting point but remember people are different differences between one individual and another, or one group and another should be fully investigated and sensible judgements made. Some employees are highly motivated even in the face of difficult work circumstances, while others never feel any enthusiasm for their work. One employee may cope superbly with a high work volume and pressure level, while another may crack under the strain of a lower volume of work and less pressure. This does not mean that one employee is strong and the other weak; they are just different and therefore comparisons between one department or one individual and another may be misleading.

Trends over a period of time can be useful. Any increases need to be investigated and addressed. It is also worth investigating improvements to see whether lessons can be learned and applied in other departments.

If figures are to be meaningful, they may need adjusting for exceptional circumstances. For example, one department’s absence levels could be distorted by a single employee taking several months off due to a serious illness.

As a guide, I always consider short term self certified absences that exceed 8 days in a rolling 12 month period to be unsatisfactory.

How Do You Deal With Unsatisfactory Absence?

Tactful but serious questioning is usually sufficient to deter employees from falsely claiming illness, but where an employees level of absence has reached unsatisfactory proportions or where absences are following a particular pattern e.g. school holidays, regular Mondays, days when their football team are playing etc. further investigations will be required.

Individuals who fall into the unsatisfactory absence bracket should move to a programme of formal Return to Work Meetings.  As with informal return to work meetings they should occur on their first day back to work following all periods of absence.  

See my article Return to Work Meetings and download my template Return to Work Meeting form.

When taking an individual forward to a formal process you would also be justified in investigating in the following ways:-

  • Asking the employee for permission to approach their doctor for a report. It is important that this is done in compliance with the Access to Medical Reports Act 1988. The Access to Health Records Act 1990 enables an individual to obtain a copy of their own health record, which they could then pass on to you.
  • Requesting the employee visits your company doctor or Occupational Health Advisors.

The formal meetings should continue until you are satisfied that the absence levels have reduced to a satisfactory level.

Top Tips

Frequent absence of this nature may indicate general ill health requiring medical investigation, and if continued may indicate work related stress caused by lack of capability to do the job. Individuals in this situation should be encouraged to seek proper medical attention to establish any underlying health problem. It may also be useful to discuss whether there are domestic difficulties with the job.

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The Managing Unsatisfactory Absence folder contains guidance and resources to help you manage employees whose absence levels are preventing them from providing regular and efficient service. I provide a How To Guide and Flow Chart, a Checklist to help you prepare for a Formal Return to Work Meeting and a series of warning letters, including dismissal.

When Does Sickness Absence Become Unsatisfactory?

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