Last reviewed 5 August 2021

Researcher and employment law writer at Croner-i, Opeyemi Ogundeji, explores how employers can manage sickness absences and how rejecting leave requests can affect absence levels.

Sickness absence can cause disruption to business activities, so it is understandable that employers would want to avoid the subject. However, sickness absence is an inevitable HR issue which employers should know how to deal with.

A 2019 report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that the annual cost of sickness absence is estimated at £554 per employee and there were an average of 5.9 days’ sickness absence noted per employee per year.

Although this figure declined during the pandemic due to many people working from home or on furlough, these numbers may return to pre-pandemic levels as the UK economy reopens. Learning to manage the issue can therefore help businesses keep absence to an acceptable level.

Sickness absences can also impact businesses in the following ways:

  • impact on customer service

  • lower workforce morale

  • employers having to find cover

  • lower productivity

  • fractured working relationships.

How to manage sickness absence

Employers should be clear from the beginning about the business case for managing sickness absence. It is not that employees cannot take time off work when they are sick. Instead, a good absence management system can help — it can include absence notification procedures such as requiring staff to call instead of texting or emailing, conducting return to work interviews, and/or recording all absences and monitoring them for patterns.

Employers should also be focused on these four criteria:

  1. Managing absence to keep this to an acceptable level.

  2. Identifying the causes of absence.

  3. Taking care of employees’ health and wellbeing.

  4. Monitoring absence proactively and sensitively.

Identifying the cause of absence is important because employers may be able to provide support to the employee, eg if the cause is mental health, by reducing their hours. It will also help in identifying whether the absence is being caused by an impairment which is likely to be classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010. It is important to determine this because the legislation will place additional obligations on an employer to make reasonable adjustments and provides protection for the employee.

Taking care of employee health and wellbeing is a duty to manage the health and safety of employees and this cannot be done where they are going off sick and no questions are being asked. It may be that an employee’s wellbeing is being affected by a workplace matter, but this is never identified so is never then taken care of.

How annual leave management ties in

As the warmer months are now upon us, and we start to look to the skies for some summer sunshine, employees may begin to take a significant part of their annual leave during the summer months, and the holiday diary may look a little busier than normal.

As a result, employers may find that they are unable to accept leave requests as they fall on the same days. This may, in turn, lead to a rise in sickness absences. Given the nature of sickness absences, this could cause serious disruptions to the business as cover will be needed at short notice.

The key to mitigating this will be to ensure leave requests are managed properly and fairly, and employees are made aware of their obligation to the company.

Where conflicting leave requests are received, or a request cannot be approved in line with the internal policy, for example where the maximum amount of employees are already booked off, then employers should respond to the request in a timely manner, confirming that leave has been refused. Explaining the reasons why and referring to the holiday policy, and the rules set out within it, will help to limit any potential issues regarding this decision.

Communication will be important here also. Employers will benefit from speaking with staff whose leave requests have to be rejected to see if anything else can be done for them, eg a half day instead of a full day, or perhaps they could complete their tasks before leaving so that there is no backlog.

It is important that employers do not assume that a person who has had their annual leave rejected and has called in sick is faking an illness. Doing this could lead to tribunal claims of unfair dismissal. With any suspected misconduct, this will require a fair process to be followed, as emphasised in previous case law.

In Kane v Debmat Surfacing Ltd, an employment tribunal held that a driver who was sacked after being spotted drinking in a club while he was off sick was unfairly dismissed. This was due to the procedural defects on the part of the employer. The employer had not gathered sufficient information from which to make a reasonable decision; they worked on assumptions rather than fact.

Investigating the alleged misconduct will require a return-to-work process to be followed as this will form part of the evidence. If, after the investigation, it is deemed that there is a case to answer, this should then be dealt with under the disciplinary process.

Next moves

Managing absence can be complex but a good way to notify employees of the requirements to follow when absent and how this will be managed is to implement a sickness absence policy. This will set out internal rules on absence management. It is also used to highlight the workplace support available for absent staff, eg reduction in working hours, use of annual leave for rest if the employee is overworked, and so on.