Everyone falls ill from time to time and employers should understand that there will be occasions when employees are off work due to sickness.
However, a good attendance record from employees is essential to the smooth running of any organisation. When employees are absent on sick leave, this is not only a difficulty for the absent employee but also for their colleagues who often find that they have more work to do to cover for the absent employee. For the smooth running of the organisation, it is essential that absence management is handled in a pro-active manner.
Employees should be made aware of what reporting mechanism is in place for them if they are absent from work. This should be set out in an absence policy and it is important to ensure that a copy of this is easily accessible to employees so that they know who to contact if they cannot attend work due to sick leave. It is usually best to require employees to telephone their line manager personally where possible so that as much information as possible can be gathered about the sickness absence and the expected duration of the absence.
Keeping in touch during a period of absence
Employers are often nervous about keeping in touch with employees, in case they are accused of harassing a sick employee. However, lack of contact or involvement could lead to an employee feeling that the employer does not care. Appropriate contact is essential. If the contact is supportive and caring, and focused on supporting the employee it is difficult to see how it could be construed as harassment.
If the absence is for a lengthy period of time, it is important to keep in touch with the employee to remind them that you care about their welfare and to keep employees updated about changes in the workplace. Ongoing contact is also important to ensure that the employer always has the most up-to-date information and is working from an informed stance when considering timescales for a return to work and whether any adjustments can be made to facilitate a return to work.
Employees should be made aware of their responsibility to keep in contact during their sickness absence, although an employee who is seriously ill is unlikely to be able to comply with normal reporting requirements.
Sometimes employees request that the employer does not make contact during sickness absence. It is important to establish the reason for this request as it may identify that there is an issue in work that is contributing to the employee’s ill-health and, if the employer is aware of this, steps can be taken to address the issue and work towards a resolution and the employee’s return to work.
Seeking medical opinion
It can be helpful to take advice from a sick employee’s doctor regarding the employee’s condition, expected timeframe for recovery and whether you can do anything to assist the employee in returning to work. It may also be appropriate to consider arranging an assessment with an occupational health doctor. Your employee does not have to give permission for you to write to their doctor or consent to you obtaining a report from an independent doctor but if consent is refused, you can tell the employee that you may have to reluctantly make decisions regarding their employment without the benefit of medical opinion.
Returning to work
The absence management process does not end when the employee returns to work. The employee’s line manager should conduct a return-to-work interview with the employee after their absence, so that the employee is aware that their absence has been noted and so that any support the employee might need upon returning to work can be identified. The return-to-work interview also gives the line manager the opportunity to raise any concerns about the absence, particularly if the employee has a poor attendance record. A written record should be kept of the return-to-work interview.
Persistent absence can be addressed by using the disciplinary process. An employee should be made aware that there are concerns about his or her attendance before the disciplinary process is invoked. The employee should be aware that a lack of improvement in attendance might result in disciplinary action being taken.
If there has been a serious breach of the absence policy, an employer might consider whether this amounts to gross misconduct and should result in summary dismissal. A typical example of this may be where the employee informs the employer that they are ill and then is spotted working elsewhere while off work on sick leave.
Absence management is difficult. While procedures are important, it is also vital to exercise common sense and discretion and deal with matters on a case by case basis. It is not possible to provide a comprehensive checklist of actions to take in relation to every absence..
This article is intended as a guide only and is not a substitute for taking specific advice.
Mark Mason is an employment lawyer and the Director of Collective Business Services – a consultancy practice based in Mallusk. If you have a question you would like to see answered in the Times, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org