Sickness absence can have a significant impact on your business. It can result in low productivity and morale and duplication of costs, paying both the sick worker and their temporary cover. Having a good sickness policy, conducting return to work interviews and well trained managers are usually effective tools in managing sickness absence, but how do you deal with more difficult situations relating to absence?
Time off for family illness
Research shows that nearly 3 million days a year are lost due to parents taking time off to look after sick children.
Employees do have a right to reasonable (unpaid) time off to look after a sick dependant but they must take steps in order to minimise the amount of they that they are absent and look for alternative arrangements. Flexible working may be a suitable compromise – you could offer the employee the opportunity to make up the lost time, work from home, use flexi-days, time off in lieu and annual or unpaid leave.
You must be careful not to take a negative approach to an employee being absent due to their child being unwell as you could leave your business open to claims of indirect sex discrimination or disability discrimination if the employee is caring for a disabled family member.
If it can be shown that you have tried to be flexible, you are less likely to be open to claims and subsequently more likely to maintain good relationships with your employees.
Frequent unrelated absences
You need to determine whether there is a capability (can’t do) or conduct (won’t do) issue before you do anything. If it’s ‘can’t do’, you should use your capability policy. If it’s a ‘won’t do’ situation, this should be dealt with as a potential disciplinary issue.
Don’t get caught out with a disability discrimination claim just because the absences appear to be unconnected. In all cases, assess whether the employee has a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities. You may have to consider reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010.
Also consider whether the pattern of absence is an indication of problems at work such as bullying or harassment, which you may be vicariously liable for.
Return to work meetings are a good opportunity for line managers to discuss frequent absences with the relevant employee and try to determine if there are any underlying issues and if there is any support that the employee needs.
Sickness prior to a disciplinary meeting
If disciplinary action is being taken against an employee and they subsequently become unwell, it is important to balance the need to proceed with the disciplinary and the employee’s health. Often the disciplinary process may be the cause of the ill health so delaying it may not be the best course of action for anyone involved.
Sometimes you may suspect that the employee may not be genuinely ill and may use sickness as an excuse to prolong their employment and avoid dismissal. This is a tricky thing to prove so tread carefully and seek legal advice before you accuse an employee of faking it!
If the absence is protracted, an occupational health practitioner may be able to help you determine if the employee is fit enough to take part in the process and what adjustments could be made in order to accommodate them. For example, a written submission rather than attendance at a meeting in person.
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