In this first article in a series of two, Martin Hodgson explains how to implement a sickness absence policy, how to track and record absences and the distinction between long- and short-term sickness absence.

Most sickness absence is entirely appropriate and represents genuine health problems affecting staff that prevent them from attending work. In some cases, particularly in a care home setting, it may be the home itself that requires a member of staff to be off sick, eg where they have a communicable disease and are a food handler.

However, excessive amounts of sickness absence can become a serious problem for the effective functioning of any business, and sickness can also be used by some staff as an excuse for extra time off.

In all cases a home is advised to monitor sickness absence carefully and investigate the causes where necessary. High sickness rates may mean that staff are taking leave when it is not warranted, but it could also point to workplace health or well-being issues that need to be addressed, eg stress at work.

The costs of sickness absence

High rates of sickness absence can represent a significant cost for a home, both in financial and performance terms. These can include:

  • high overhead and staff costs — in a care home the employer may have to draft in agency cover or pay other staff extra hours to cover for staff who are sick

  • reduced quality of performance and service levels — sickness absence can leave the organisation short staffed

  • work disruption — staff off sick may have special skills or work roles that are not easily covered by others

  • low morale — morale can quickly suffer in organisations where sickness absence rates are high, usually manifested as general dissatisfaction and resentment among employees filling in for absent colleagues.

Faced with these problems, most organisations will want to adopt a strategy that aims to reduce sickness absence wherever possible to reasonable levels.

Sickness absence policies

All care homes should have a policy on sickness absence. The policy should recognise the dual purpose of sickness absence procedures to:

  • support staff affected by ill health

  • ensure the continued smooth running of the home by the regular attendance of staff.

The policy should go on to set out exactly how sickness absence will be monitored, measured and responded to.

All sickness absence policies should be regularly reviewed and appropriate changes made in collaboration with senior management and staff representatives. Commitment is required at all management levels, but senior management support in particular is required to successfully manage sickness and absence issues.

Measuring sickness absence

The first step to tackling any suspected problem with sickness absence is to gain an idea of the scale of the problem by measuring the sickness absence rates. This enables an employer to ascertain:

  • exactly how much time is being lost

  • where the absence occurs most

  • how often individual employees are absent.

Measuring sickness absence in a care home setting will usually involve managers ensuring that staff notify them whenever they are sick. The manager must then keep careful records from which data must be collated.

In April 2010, “sickness certificates” issued by GPs were replaced with a single revised Statement of Fitness for Work Form, and common reporting requirements include completing self-certification forms or submitting “fit notes” to cover all sickness absence.

In setting up or revising a reporting system, it is good practice to consult with staff representatives and with individual members of staff. Staff sickness can be a tricky and emotive subject and there may be a culture in place whereby staff are used to sickness not being closely monitored. Gaining staff co-operation is a key factor in the success of a monitoring system.

Using the data obtained, senior managers can calculate:

  • the lost time rate — an overall measurement of total absence in a given period

  • the frequency rate — a measurement of the numbers absent during the period.

It is important that data regarding sickness rates is regularly analysed and reviewed. Senior managers with nominated responsibility for sickness should look for trends and patterns and should request advice from occupational health services wherever appropriate. Such reviews should be linked to the organisation’s accident management reporting systems and untoward incident reporting systems.

If the records kept are sufficiently detailed, managers should be able to identify the comparative sickness rates of different departments, units or teams. Organisations with a number of homes may be able to compare each one. Some patterns may only reveal themselves over time and will require a sustained effort to measure, monitor and analyse.

Keeping sickness absence records

Keeping sickness data is relevant for Statutory Sick Pay purposes as well as for records monitoring the levels, type and frequency of sickness absence in the organisation.

For monitoring purposes, accurate attendance records should be kept, showing:

  • individual instances of absence

  • the duration of the absence

  • the reason for the absence (without revealing any health information)

  • where in the organisation the absentee works.

Care should be taken that the keeping of records and any analysis of them complies with the Data Protection Act 1998. Some sickness records are classed as “sensitive personal data” and the employee’s consent must be obtained before collecting or using information. In this context it is useful to distinguish between personal sickness records (ie records that include information about employees’ health) and attendance records.

For analysis purposes, records should be anonymised, and a “league table” approach is best avoided.

Long- and short-term absences

A distinction is often made between long- and short-term sickness, and it is common for an organisation to define both in its policy.

Short-term sickness usually refers to sicknesses of one day or several days. Typical causes will be coughs, colds, diarrhoea and vomiting or minor musculo-skeletal problems. Most short-term sickness absences will be routine, but where a manager identifies a problem, further investigation may be required. Causes for concern include:

  • members of staff building up large numbers of short-term absences

  • patterns of short-term absences that arouse suspicion, eg a member of staff may always be sick on a Monday or Friday.

Managers should note that unless their reporting and recording procedures are robust, short-term absences will tend to be under-reported, as the odd day here and there can easily be missed in a busy workplace.

Longer-term absence may involve staff who have more serious illnesses or conditions or who may have been injured at work. In some cases, the member of staff may have a condition that is considered a disability under the provisions of the Equality Act 2010.

Many organisations define long-term sickness as continuous sickness over a set period, eg three or four weeks. Data on these absences should also be collected and monitored, but on average a home will have a small number of long-term absences at any one time. Cases should usually be monitored on an individual level by a combination of the line manager, an occupational health service or GP and a human resources advisor, if available within the organisation.

Last reviewed 10 May 2012