Persistent sickness absences
If you have an unreliable employee who is constantly phoning in sick, this can take a toll on managing workloads and staff morale, especially if you are a small business.
In this article we look at the best way to manage persistent sickness absences and consider if there are any ways you can reduce them.
Managing Genuine Absences
Most employees are conscientious but occasionally you will be faced with an employee who is constantly phoning in sick.
The first step in this process is to establish how many days the employee has had off, the reasons for the absences and if there is a pattern forming, for example the sick days are always on a Monday or Friday. If you keep good sickness absence records this should be an easy task. If not, we would recommend you start.
The next time the employee is off, hold a return to work meeting. This should a relatively informal meeting. Highlight to the employee the information you have gathered. If there is a pattern, once the employee realises you know this it may be enough for them to reconsider their actions. Explain the impact the absences are having on the business. Give the employee a chance to respond. Confirm to the employee that if an improvement is not seen over the next three or six months you will need to consider formal action.
If the absences continue then you should follow any formal sickness absence policy you have.
What you may face is an employee who improves but slips back in to their old habits. Just because the review period is over does not prevent you relying on previous absences when deciding whether to start formal action or try the informal approach again.
Beware; if the employee has any underlying health issues that are causing the sickness absences, this could be due to a disability and therefore they will be protected against discrimination. Even if the employee has not mentioned any underlying health issues, a Tribunal could still find that you had sufficient information to put you on notice of a disability. This can therefore be a very tricky situation, because if you ask the question and the employee then tells you they have a disability you will have knowledge. Therefore, if you are in this situation, before you take any steps, seek legal advice on how to handle this.
Recent Legal Developments
In an interesting case, Metroline West v Ajaj, a bus driver who was off sick was dismissed for gross misconduct on the grounds that he had exaggerated his injuries and this was dishonest.
Mr Ajaj claimed he had suffered a fall at work and was off sick for a considerable amount of time. During the management of his absence, the employer became suspicious that Mr Ajaj was exaggerating his injuries and arranged for covert recordings of him. On reviewing the recordings, it was clear that Mr Ajaj’s movements were inconsistent with his account of his injuries.
The Tribunal held that the dismissal should have been on grounds of capability, not conduct. However, the Employment Appeal Tribunal disagreed and held that dismissal on grounds of misconduct was fair. It said that an employee who ‘pulls a sickie’ is dishonest and therefore in fundamental breach of contract. Perhaps a good case to scare employees with!
One word of caution when relying on this case; bear in mind circumstances surrounding the ‘sickie’. A one off sickie is unlikely to be gross misconduct but could still amount to misconduct. Mr Ajaj was claiming sick pay for an extended period of time as well as exaggerating his injuries, hence the seriousness of the allegations.
If you do decide to discipline an employee for misconduct, remember you must have a reasonable belief in their guilt.
The following are some schemes that can be implemented that might help you reduce sickness absences:
- Sickness Absence Policies. If you have a good policy in place this can help you tackle persistent absences early on. Make sure staff and managers alike are aware of the policies and provide training to managers to help them implement the policies.
- Bonuses. Some companies offer their employees bonuses if they do not take any sick days during a 12 month period. Such schemes are not unlawful per se, but you need to be careful that they do not give rise to disability discrimination. Also they can be counterproductive. Sick employees may attend work when really they should be at home and those that genuinely needed to take time off sick may resent those that are paid a bonus.
- ‘Duvet Days’. In recent years companies have been offering employees ‘duvet days’. In essence this allows an employee to book last minute time off without question. Some employers deduct the days from annual leave, whilst others are more generous and will have a fixed allocation of duvet days for each employee. Companies that have such policies in place have noted on average a 40% reduction in sickness absences. The down side is that your business may not be able to cope with employees taking holiday at short notice. Also you need to be clear as to what happens on major events, such as sporting events; you do not want half your employees asking for a duvet day due to a heavy session the night before.
- Promote healthy living. This can be done via workplace incentives or through training, such as mental health resilience training to help tackle stress at work. Some companies offer discounted gym membership or lunch time sessions to promote fitness.
- Other programs. Flu jabs can help prevent physical illness, whilst Employee Assistance Programmes can help mental wellbeing. Employee Assistance Programmes offer confidential support to employees either via the telephone, face to face or with counselling. Such programs can also help managers monitor certain information, such as the reason for the calls. It does not allow you to monitor individual staff or circumstances but if you see a large section of your workforce contacting the programme about the same issue you can look to address it.
According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and Simplyhealth’s Absence management survey, published in October 2015 the average employee has 6.9 sick days per annum. Thus a one off fee now for a tailored made policy for your business could save you thousands in the long run.
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Laura Pearce, Senior Solicitor