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Managing Sickness Absence

Managing sickness absence is important in any organisation, large or small, particularly as employee sickness can affect business productivity and can become costly. Employees are entitled to paid time off from work for health-related reasons, so as part of managing sickness absence formally and professionally, all absences need to be handled in accordance with employment law and in line with the policies in your employee handbook. Part of managing sickness absence requires return-to-work interviews, obtaining fit notes if an employee is off for longer periods, and understanding if an employee’s work is influencing poor health. HR:4UK can take the pressure off by managing sickness absence for you.


Sickness absence can cause immense difficulties to a business, particularly if your workforce is relatively small.

This guide sets out a process for managing sickness absence. The procedure may seem longwinded at times – however, our experience has shown that it may save you time, trouble and possibly a tribunal in the long run.

This process is meant for use in cases where the employee is absent with an indefinite/vague illness/injury or for frequent short-term absences. It is not for employees who are absent due to routine or planned surgery (unless there are unexpected complications) or other occasional finite sickness absences.

Managing Absence 

Managing absence, including the returning to work after a period away from the workplace, should be standard procedure in every business, no matter the size of the organisation. Employees can be away from work for any number of reasons, such as personal or family sickness and injury. However, employees need to be open and honest about why they are missing work and provide any supporting documentation, such as fit notes where possible as per the policies in your employee handbook. HR:4UK have absence management systems in place to support businesses with all the administration involved in managing absence, guiding you every step of the way. HR:4UK is here to help you offer the best absence management solution for you and your staff.

What next?

If you decide that investigation of absence is appropriate, then you should send a letter to the employee asking for consent for you to write to his or her GP or consultant for further information about their illness/injury/apparent ill health.

If the employee does consent, then send a letter to the GP/consultant asking for diagnosis, recommended treatment and prognosis, in relation to the workplace. You must also send a copy of the signed consent form from the employee. Please be aware that doctors may charge for the report – you will have to pay this on receipt.

When the report is returned to you, the next step will depend on the content of the report. This may range from the GP/consultant saying that the employee will never be able to carry out his/her original work in the future or that the employee is fit to return to duties tomorrow.

If the employee does not consent to a medical report being provided, then you may need to make your decision based on the information you have currently. Please seek advice from HR:4UK before proceeding.

Each case needs to be treated on its individual merits and we cannot advise in general terms about this point. Our advisors will be able to give you specific advice if you are unsure of the correct next step – just give us a call on 01455 444 222 or contact us.

If you have a doctor’s report, act immediately. Depending on the content of the report you may:

  • Inform the employee that he or she can return to work in line with the doctor’s statement.
  • Call a meeting with the employee to discuss the report.
  • Offer the employee light duties.

Although there are circumstances when you can dismiss an employee as a result of their absence, this is fraught with difficulty and risk and therefore it is essential that you seek advice in order to ensure that the dismissal is fair.

Guidance on carrying out a capability meeting

‘Capability meetings’ are often used when dealing with instances of long term absence as a result of ill health; however, can also be useful when dealing with frequent bouts of short term absence.

A capability meeting is merely a ‘fact-finding mission’ and no decisions will be made as a result of discussions. Although a capability meeting must follow a formal format, it is a fairly low key affair and should in no way be treated as a disciplinary meeting.

The purpose of the meeting is to understand fully the current situation in order for all facts to be considered, thus enabling you to decide on what action, if any, should be taken.

A capability meeting may be called to discuss an employee’s absence if they have chosen not to give permission for a medical report or if a report has been received.

Once the capability meeting has been held you may decide to call a formal meeting to consider termination of employment.

It is most important that this guidance is followed ‘to the letter’ to ensure that you are as protected as possible. Some medical conditions may be considered as a disability under the Equality Act and therefore give the employee protection from dismissal. Please seek advice if you are in any doubt as making a mistake in this area of employment can be very costly. Our advisors can provide specific advice about particular situations – just call 01455 444 222 or contact us.

If an employee does not give permission for a medical report you may want to consider a capability meeting to discuss the current situation.

We recommend giving your employee 48 hours advance written notice  of the meeting, confirming the location, date and time of the meeting. The employee will, of course, have the right to be accompanied.

As the employee will be discussing personal health issues it may be that he or she would prefer to be accompanied by a relative or close friend. Under the circumstances it would be beneficial to accept this person as their chosen companion.

At the meeting we suggest the following:

  • Point out that it is difficult for you to make a reasoned decision as the employee has refused to allow a medical report. Stress that the report you are looking for would not be intrusive but informative.  Give examples of the sort of questions you would be asking and confirm with the employee that he or she still wishes to refuse a report.
  • Ask the employee to confirm his or her current condition and if he or she can give you a likely date of return to work.
  • Ask the employee if he or she believes he or she will be able to return to his or her original job. If not, what adjustments may need to be made in order for the employee to return?
  • If no adjustments can be made, for what other positions does the employee feel he or she may be considered?
  • Explain the need to build up as complete a picture as possible on which you can base your decisions.

Once the meeting is complete let the employee know that you will confirm discussions in writing – and do so.

If a report has been received from a doctor you should invite the employee to a capability meeting to discuss the content. In calling the meeting you should enclose a copy of the report that you intend to discuss.

At the meeting you should ask the employee if he or she agrees with the content of the report and if he or she can provide any further information.

Discuss the likely return to work date and if the employee feels able to return to his or her original post. If the employee or the doctor feel that this is unlikely, discuss reasonable adjustments that may be made to the job. You may also discuss other positions to which the employee may be suited.

Once the discussions have concluded, close the meeting by confirming that discussions will be committed to writing.

You should by this stage have all the information you need to decide on the next step.

At this point the usual options are:

  • Take no further action.
  • Call a meeting and move towards dismissal on grounds of capability.
  • Consider making adjustments to the job to encourage the employee to return to work.

Most employers find managing sickness absence in the workplace extremely difficult – even traumatic at times – and it can be devastating to a business if a key employee is off for a long period.

Getting it right

You must exercise caution when handling sickness management issues to avoid any potential disability discrimination claims – which can be very expensive if taken to an employment tribunal.

You can minimise these risks by using the services of HR:4UK. Our advisors can help you to manage these and other employment issues.

For further help and advice, speak to one of our advisors by calling 01455 444222 or complete our Contact form and an advisor will contact you shortly.

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