Should disciplinary action be taken to address sickness absence?

Posted in : HR Updates on 8 November 2017
Olga Pollock
firmus energy
Issues covered:

I was intrigued to read advice given in November 2017's edition of People Management in relation to an absence policy that doesn't work. In the question and answer section, the reader referred to their absence policy which stated that a disciplinary investigation is triggered by four instances of short-term absence in quick succession but that managers were finding it hard to decide if team members were genuinely ill. The advice given described such an approach as being outdated and likely regarded as punitive by the managers implementing the policy. The recommendation was that absence management should be supportive without the threat of disciplinary action. This was regarded as a barrier to meaningful conversations taking place about the real reasons for absence, prohibiting employees to ask for help where needed.

The guidance made me reflect on my experience of both developing and implementing sickness absence policies. In all cases, such policies were supported by the organisational disciplinary policy which was triggered by a specified number of spells of sickness and/or total of number of days absence in a given period. Granted, the policies also included additional supportive measures such as back-to-work meetings and the use of Occupational Health and Employee Assistance Programmes but the reference in the article to use of the disciplinary policy in a negative context has made me question its use.

Clearly pretending to be ill when you're not will likely lead to disciplinary action but surely even if sickness is genuine and certified an employer can still take disciplinary action where sickness levels are high as long as they follow a fair and consistent process? Further research into the topic has warned how such approaches are automatic and rarely take account of individual circumstances.

We are all too aware of the impact of absence on the workplace in terms of financial implications such as the payment of occupational and statutory sick pay as well as having to employ temporary staff to cover workloads. In turn, spreading duties around the team can increase the risk of mistakes while staff can feel resentment and reduced morale at having to cover for colleagues who are off sick. So clearly it makes good business sense to have a robust absence management system in place but if we're considering ditching the use of disciplinary action, what can take its place?

Some employers make use of attendance incentives to encourage higher attendance levels and discourage unnecessary absence. These may be financial rewards or allowing staff an extra day's leave for 100% attendance. Similarly, other employers have factored in absence levels when determining annual or monthly bonuses or have set fixed salary levels so that full salary is only paid to those employees who attain a specified level of attendance. When considering such approaches, I would recommend careful consideration of how these sit with our obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act to ensure the approach does not negatively impact any employees with disabilities.

Other initiatives to improve attendance levels include promoting a culture which encourages meaningful and honest conversations with staff regarding their absence. These may take place during back to work meetings but equally discussions can take place with staff during welfare visits for long-term absences whilst they are still off. Regular reviews should be held with employees who subsequently return to work to discuss progress, the support needed and any problems faced.

Some employers agree on reduced duties within the employee's capabilities, similar to that of a phased return but being a more tailored approach. Preventative initiatives such as promoting both physical and mental well-being along with flexible and home working are known to reduce the likelihood of sickness absence as well as the use of Employee Assistance Programmes which can provide support to both present and absent staff. Indeed in England, Wales and Scotland the 'Fit for Work' services provide support to employers, employees and GPs in managing a return to work.

According to CITYA.M., employees in the US often do not have an annual sick leave allocation but rather are granted a certain number of 'personal days' which can be used for sickness. Interestingly the US report lower levels of intermittent absence than their UK counterparts.

Regardless of whether or not we are an advocate of using the disciplinary process in conjunction with the absence policy, I think we are all in no doubt that reducing absence, and ideally preventing it in the first place is something we strive for in our organisations. In my opinion, an open culture where employees have a voice and are listened to during frequent one-to-ones with their manager is the golden ticket to a great working environment.

Useful reading

Page 57 PM Magazine Nov 2017


This article is correct at 08/11/2017

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Olga Pollock
firmus energy

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