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Managing Sickness Absence

Most people have a few days off sick at some time during their working life. Flu, the common cold and "tummy upsets" can strike anyone at any time. But such absences can also be the result of occupational incidents, for example a workplace accident or injury. But whatever the cause the employer should be taking an interest in why his employees are not at work.

Sometimes a short absence, or more commonly a series of short absences is an indicator of something more serious and can lead to long-term absence. Sickness absence costs:

  • UK plc over £17 billion per annum in direct costs
  • In 2010 the average total cost of absence per employee to UK employers was £760

Sickness absence can be especially critical for the smaller firm where there is less opportunity to "cover" a missing person. The management of sickness absence and helping those who are absent to return to work as soon as possible will benefit all firms. But such activity can only be achieved by collaboration with employees and the adoption of clear and agreed procedures. However, there are benefits for both employer and employee. For the company it is possible to:

  • Retain valuable employees 
  • Reduce costs and overheads 
  • Maintain productivity and competitiveness 
  • Improve relationships with employees

And for employees there is the clear financial benefit of an early return to work coupled with improved health and well-being.

As a first step it is important that sickness absence is monitored. The number and length of absences should be recorded together with the reasons for the absence. When employees return to work they should be interviewed.

However, it is important that this activity is not misunderstood by employees nor viewed in the wrong manner. For example the return to work interview should be positioned as being to aid the employee's return to work and not as attempt to find fault, or to discourage futures absences.

Some important Do's and Don'ts

In order to achieve success it is essential to adopt the correct approach when implementing return to work strategies.

DO:

  • Create a climate of trust - Keep employees aware of developments. Ensure employees are involved in the introduction of new initiatives. 
  • Ensure a sensitive approach is adopted at all times 
  • Seek best advice from others 
  • Ensure managers are trained 
  • Plan ahead - have a structured approach set out and communicated to all 
  • Be flexible and prepared to treat each case on its merits 
  • Welcome employees back on their return to work. Carry out return to work interviews

DON'T:

  • Put pressure on employees to return to work 
  • Talk about an individual's absence with anyone else. Maintain confidentiality. 
  • Delay or put off making contact with absent employees

Return to Work Strategies

Contrary to popular belief there are many approaches that can be used to enable an employee to return to work in a safe and managed fashion. And these approaches are not necessarily expensive. The following examples indicate the type of approaches that may be used:

  • Offer reduced working hours until full fitness is regained 
  • Consider changing the job to suit the individual 
  • Offer an alternative job that places less strain on the employee 
  • Consider whether re-training for an alternative job would aid the return 
  • Determine whether modifications to the workplace are needed/would be of value e.g. reducing the height of shelves 
  • Determine whether some form of rehabilitation or physiotherapy is needed

Whilst the last of these might be viewed as an expensive option low-cost treatment is available and the number of visits may not be excessive. The use of such services often helps identify which of the other options will be of value e.g. modification to the job or workplace.

Long-term Absences and Rehabilitation

When long-term absences are involved the use of rehabilitation is more common. Rehabilitation is the term used to describe various different techniques and approaches designed to return a person to work. It is not possible to describe all possible approaches here but they include physiotherapy, occupational therapy and pain management. The exact approach necessary is a matter for technical guidance and assistance.
With long-term absences it is more likely that the medical profession may be involved since the employee will almost certainly have been seen by their GP. The medical profession must be involved in every step. In addition, if the absence is the result of a workplace accident then the employee may have approached their legal adviser or trade union and be considering, or have initiated, a claim against the company. In such circumstances it is essential to involve the firms Employers' Liability insurer.

There are certain key principles that need to be adopted:

Early Intervention:

  • This is essential to reduce the risk of the condition escalating or deteriorating. It also helps maintain the employees' interest in work and reduces the risk of them becoming alienated from work. 
  • This may need to be driven by the employer.

Ensure an employee centred approach is adopted:

  • Make sure that the employee made aware of all the issues and is involved in all decision making. 
  • Employers should ensure that those supplying expert assistance remain focussed on the absent employee.
  • Make return to work the focus of all activity.

Further information

HSE microsite on Sickness Management

HSE  Six Elements to Sickness Management

HSE guidance for Small Businesses

Fit Note Guidance

ACAS Sickness Management

Next Steps

  • Source discounted products, available to Aviva insured customers and brokers, via our Specialist Partners - click here to find out more about the savings you could make
  • Call our Risk Helpline on 0345 366 66 66
  • Email us at riskadvice@aviva.com
  • View our Tools and Templates

Please Note
This document contains general information and guidance and is not and should not be relied on as specific advice. The document may not cover every risk, exposure or hazard that may arise and Aviva recommend that you obtain specific advice relevant to the circumstances. AVIVA accepts no responsibility or liability towards any person who may rely upon this document.

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