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Managing short-term sickness absence

Understanding possible causes

It is important to understand there may be a variety of reasons for frequent short-term sickness absences, including:

  • an underlying medical condition
  • an unusually high, but genuine, vulnerability to colds, flu, etc.
  • excessive tiredness (e.g. the employee may have additional responsibilities outside of work such as childcare or a second job)
  • personal or family problems
  • problems in the workplace
  • demotivation

Discussions between the manager and employee can help to determine if there are any contributing factors and what, if any, support can be provided.

Considering workplace factors

Frequent short-term sickness absences may be caused or exacerbated by factors in the workplace. For example, in addition to genuine periods of sickness, frequent short-term absences may be linked to:

  • stress due to the volume of work or pressure of work deadlines
  • difficult working relationships or conflict with colleagues
  • bullying or harassment
  • anxiety relating to organisational change
  • other factors causing dissatisfaction (e.g. ineffective procedures/equipment or a lack of clear goals/targets

Appropriate support should be considered if a workplace issues are identified. This may include mediation, counselling, re-assessing workloads and training.

If a workplace issue is identified, the manager should take steps to remove or reduce the factors that appear to be contributing to the absences, if this is at all possible.

Return to work discussions

Return to work discussions should take place after each episode of sickness and are extremely important in managing sickness.

The interview is an opportunity to investigate any underlying causes of short-term absences and is particularly important if an employee has a high rate of short-term absences.

Monitoring and recording

Employee short-term absence should be monitored to identify any high levels or particular patterns. Maintaining an accurate record of sickness absence is essential to help manage any absence.

Self-certificates and medical certificates (fit notes) should be retained on the employee personnel file and should be held confidentially.

Identifying and discussing patterns

When reviewing employee sickness absence record, any patterns which cause concern should be identified and discussed. This could include repeated absences on a particular day of the week or time (e.g. just before a monthly deadline or towards the end of a busy shift cycle).

Discussions about sickness absence patterns should be carried out in a factual way, by stating the facts and asking open questions. For example:

  • “I have noticed that six out of your ten absences have been on a Monday. Would you like to comment on that apparent pattern?”
  • “Is there any reason why nearly all your absences have been in the final week of the month?”
  • “The records show that you tend to be absent when you rotate onto nights. Is there any problem we can help you with in relation to shift working?”
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