Managing Disability Absence

Posted in : HR Matters on 1 December 2014 Issues covered:

Employers for Disability NI is an organisation focused on disability good practice. It supports member employers in implementing policies and practices which attract and retain disabled employees and customers.

Employers for Disability NI is an organisation focused on disability good practice. It supports member employers in implementing policies and practices which attract and retain disabled employees and customers. There are many benefits associated with employing people with disabilities, who bring a diversity of talents to employment; the key is to match the person to the job based on ability, not disability.

Disability-related Absence

There is a misperception that people with disabilities take more sick leave than non-disabled people; the opposite is in fact the case. Evidence shows that disabled people take less sick leave, stay with the same employer for longer and have fewer workplace accidents on average than non-disabled people. Should employees with disabilities experience disability-related absence, appropriate policies and practices will ensure that valuable employees are retained and the requirements of disability legislation are met.

Getting the Culture Right

Creating an open, supportive environment is vital in order to encourage employees to seek support early rather than hide problems, which can cause stress, lower productivity and additional problems in the long run. This can be done in many ways, for example by raising awareness of disability good practice, reasonable adjustments and examples of how the organisation has supported employees with disabilities (subject to their consent). Employers for Disability NI also advises employers to devise an absence management policy which incorporates the reasonable adjustment duties, and ensures that employees are aware of the policy and its practical application. Putting the policy into practice as early as possible and ensuring confidentiality are also essential. Please see the following for some issues often raised by employers.

Keeping in Touch

Keeping in contact with absent employees, as per normal practice, helps employees return to work; indeed lack of contact can make an employee feel unvalued. However, if a disabled employee requests minimal contact while on sick leave, the usual protocols may be adjusted. For example; contact may be less frequent, perhaps done by email when appropriate and with one key contact, someone who has a good relationship with the disabled person. All contact should be done using a sensitive, non-judgemental approach and it is important that they are reassured that the reason for contact is to find out how they are and discuss ways in which they can be supported, not to pressurise them to return or check up on them.

Recording Disability-related Absence

Employers are advised to record disability-related and non-disability-related sick leave separately to ensure that they can make an informed decision about the impact of the disability on attendance as well as the possible effects of adjustments. Case law has established that, while it is not a legal requirement to disregard all disability-related sick leave in every case, discounting a certain amount in specific circumstances may be a reasonable adjustment requirement. In addition, employers should be aware that they must not reduce pay if a disabled person is on sick leave because a reasonable adjustment has not been put in place.


It is considered good practice to identify a DDA aware employee to coordinate the absence management and reasonable adjustment process. This will also help to ensure that there is a consistent approach across the organisation. Employers should consult the disabled employee at every step as well as engaging expert opinion for assessment and identification of adjustments. The OH Adviser, who should also be DDA aware, often has a vital role and their input should be promoted as a support for both the disabled person and the organisation. Their position being to identify adjustments and provide information and advice, rather than being viewed as a punishment or evidence of the employer’s mistrust of the disabled employee. Again, communicating this message is extremely important.

It can be difficult to make an exact assessment of what might be considered reasonable, however, an employer should keep the following matters in mind to help them assess reasonableness and apply them to each circumstance:

  • Effectiveness and practicality
  • Costs and resources available
  • Disruption caused
  • Effect on other employees
  • Adjustments made for other disabled employees
  • Co-operation of the disabled person

Possible Reasonable Adjustments

Research shows that most disabled people learn to manage their disability and will require the time and support to do so, such as training, rehabilitation or treatment. Examples of possible adjustments might include allowing home working, changing certain duties or being flexible in applying triggers in any absence management policy. Of course, different circumstances will raise different challenges and solutions, such as when the employee has a recurrent disability, or when there has been a recent diagnosis. Employers must also make allowance for the disabled person to be absent for non-disability-related reasons, as with any other employee.

Returning to Work

The way that a return to work is managed is very important. For example, for some people, a phased return should be considered. Before the disabled person returns, they should be briefed about any changes in the job or workplace. In addition, making sure that an employee does not return to an unachievable backlog, but rather they have realistic workloads and achievable goals with all agreed adjustments in place, will help towards a smooth transition back to work. Once the person is back to work, it is easy to move on to other priorities, however, adjustments’ implementation should be reviewed regularly, especially in the early days of return to work.

Employers are not alone in managing disability-related absence. Employers for Disability NI has over 20 years’ experience of supporting member employers to implement good disability practice, thereby retaining valuable disabled employees and implementing legal requirements.


This article is correct at 01/12/2014

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.