Employee Absence: What are your Rights as an Employer?

Employee Absence: What are your Rights as an Employer?

Employee absence is a significant cost for many businesses, yet research suggests that only a minority of employers monitor that cost.

Apart from annual holiday entitlement, an employee may need time off for the following reasons:

  • Short term or long term sickness, which could include mental health problems
  • Helping someone dependent on them, for example, an elderly relative or a child
  • Bereavement
  • Medical appointments
  • Pregnancy-related illness and appointments, or other types of family leave
  • Bad weather or travel disruptions making it difficult to get to work

It’s really important as an employer that you set out your rules on what is acceptable in each of these areas, we would recommend these are included in your absence policy.

What should an absence policy include?

  • When and how to report absences and who to,
    • for example “absence should be reported at least 30 minutes before the start of your shift by phone to your Manager on the first day of absence. Texts are not permitted.” The reason we recommend no texts are that on a phone call you can extract lots of information through questions which you don’t get on a one-line text. For example, on the phone call we can ask what are the symptoms, are they likely to see a doctor and if so when, when are they likely to return to work, and agree on the arrangement for a phone call tomorrow
  • When a self-certificate for absence is accepted and when a medical certificate is required
  • If a return to work meeting will be held and by who
  • If you as an employer set any trigger points for managing short term absence or use for example the Bradford Factor. It is acceptable to do this as long as you take into account exceptional circumstances which may fall outside these trigger points. This is further discussed later.
  • Details of any company sick pay and/ or statutory sick pay entitlements and conditions
  • State that the employer reserves the right to require employees to attend an examination by an occupational health professional and (with the individual’s consent) to request a report from an employees doctor. If an employer requests a medical report from a health professional, it is essential to follow the Access to Medical Records Act 1988 and also be careful not to breach the Data Protection Act 2018 when they collect, use and store absence data. Health records whether physical or mental health is classed as sensitive personal data under the DPA.
  • Include any provisions of a return to work interview
  • Explain that adjustments may be appropriate to assist the employee in returning to work as soon as practicable
  • Explain your guidance on taking time off for a medical appointment, for example, aim for appointments to be made at the start or end of the day, to reduce the amount of time off required, confirm whether this is unpaid leave or paid leave
  • Give guidance on absence during adverse weather
  • You may want to consider a different policy to cover other types of leave, for example, family leave (maternity, paternity, parental and adoption leave), dependent leave, bereavement leave, jury service leave, flexible working arrangements, unauthorised absence or lateness, annual (holiday) leave

Effective absence management is about supporting employees with health issues to stay in or return to work. Most absence is genuine and employees often need support in recovery from their illness. Developing an effective return to work programmes and offering flexible working or reasonable adjustments where possible can support effective attendance management. Employers have to find a balance between providing support to help employees with health conditions to stay in and return to work, and taking consistent and firm action in those cases where employees could be trying to take advantage of company sick pay.

A focus on employee wellbeing and health promotion are good for employees and employers. It can help avoid non-genuine absence developing, and can support people to balance work to minimise the impact of their symptoms where possible.

Measuring Absence

It is key to accurately measure and monitor absence and identify trends and underlying causes. There are different ways to measure absence:

a). Lost time – this is expressed as a percentage and is the time lost due to absence divided by the total working time available x 100. It can be calculated on a team basis to compare trends

b). Number of occasions of absence – this measures the frequency of an employee’s absence irrespective of the length of absence. The reason for this is that short term frequent absence has a significant disruption on the business and this would score high. An example could be to set a trigger point for an absence review meeting after 3 occasions of absence in 6 months.

c). Bradford factor – measures the occasions of absence to identify persistent short term absence per employee using a formula.

The Bradford factor can be controversial as it can unfairly penalise employees who fall ill and come back to work quickly. A discussion with the employee should always take place to understand the reasons for absence. It would depend on the reasons for absence and underlying causes as to whether you would progress this to a more formal review and potentially an absence warning. The Equality Act 2010 requires that absences are adjusted for employees with a disability, this could be a physical or mental health disability. An individual’s disability could predispose them to regular short term absences and this could potentially lead to an employment tribunal if the employee was unfairly disciplined as a result of receiving a high Bradford Factor score.

This is where an outsourced HR partner like Clover can provide guidance on a case by case basis depending on the circumstances.

Managing Long term Absence (over 4 weeks)

This can be challenging as the longer someone is absent from work the harder it can be for them to return. Keeping in touch with employees in a sensitive way is important, as well as having a process for reasonable adjustments on their return to work as appropriate. Awareness of disability discrimination is again important to distinguish from managing short term absence. The role of the Manager is key to keeping in touch while absent, and in creating a supportive return to work processes and ongoing adjustments as needed. Occupational Health services can also proactively support health and wellbeing. A planned and coordinated return to work including risk assessments and adjustments is vital.


If you need any further advice, please contact Clover HR on 0121 516 0299 or email us at info@cloverhr.co.uk

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