Employee absenteeism

Last updated: December 2020 | 3 min read

Employees take unplanned leave for many reasons. Of them, the most common are likely to be for medical reasons (sickness) and for parenting emergencies.

Others include compassionate leave (including bereavement for the death of a close family member), for public duty (such as jury duty), and because of an inability to get to work because of travel disruption.

Of course, an employee may be absent for no good reason other than he or she wishes to have time off.

Sickness absence

If an employee is sick for up to seven days consecutively (including weekends and bank holidays), he or she does not need to prove his or her illness to justify an absence.

An employer, however, does have the right to ask him or her to confirm that he or she was sick. This is known as self certification.

An employee who is sick for more than seven days consecutively can be asked by his or her employer to provide a fit note (a sick note) from his or her GP (or another medical doctor).

Sickness includes mental illness, which itself could be a result of stress at work.

Mental illness should not be considered any less seriously than physical sickness.

If an employee is on a long-term absence, the employer should consider whether he or she might be disabled. In this context, disability has a much broader definition, being any mental or physical impairment that has an adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, and likely to last 12 months or more.

If an employee is disabled then an employer has additional duties to him or her, including to make reasonable adjustments so that the employee is not placed at substantial disadvantage as a result of the disability.

Additional care should be taken before dismissing a disabled employee in case the reason for doing so is considered discriminatory.

Employers must pay statutory sick pay for up to 28 weeks. Many businesses voluntarily have a more generous sick pay entitlement, either in time or in value.

Holiday and other employee entitlements continue to accrue during sickness absence, even when that absence is extended.

Absence for family care

An employee is entitled to reasonable time off to deal with emergencies involving dependents - children, grandchildren, parents, partners and spouses.

The reasons might include for illness or injury and the disruption of care arrangements. As examples:

  • an employee’s husband contracts a virus that keeps him bedbound, and which necessitates the employee to look after him for a day
  • an employee’s pregnant wife goes into labour earlier than expected
  • a childminder calls in sick just before she is due to pick up the children from school, requiring the employee to do so

An employer is not obliged to pay an employee in respect of time taken off work for a family emergency. However, either the employment contract or, more likely, a business policy might state otherwise.

Bereavement is also a valid reason to take time off work without notice. If so, it does not have to be paid.

Long-term absence

Long-term absence usually occurs because of a long-term illness. However, there may be short absences over a long time.

Medical information about the illness and the prognosis should be sought with the consent of the employee from the employee’s GP or medical professional. There are rules about how and when this should be done.

An employer needs to consider whether the employee can continue to contribute to the business if he or she is persistently absent.

There may be an opportunity to change how work is carried out. As examples, the employee may be allowed to change roles, or to work flexibly. However, dismissal may be necessary.

If the employment is to be continued, a return to work plan should be put in place, which avoids the need for the employee to continue obtaining fit notes from his or her GP.

If the employee is to be dismissed, then care should be taken. Dismissal risks the employee claiming that it was unfair or discriminatory.

A consultation with the employee should take place, where the issues can be discussed. The employee might bring someone else to the meeting.

Using the Bradford factor may help you decide whether sickness absence is excessive, however each each employee should be considered separately.

An employer should not include absence due to disability when selecting employees for redundancy.

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