Last reviewed 31 July 2019

With the average annual costs of sickness absence set at over £550 per employee, alongside supporting employees and managing absence, many employers are now considering what steps they can take within the workplace to reduce the impact this absence has.

The impact of covering workloads

When an employee is suddenly absent from work, most employers will fear for the impact that their uncompleted workload will have on the business. After all, most employees are a key part of the business and will have responsibilities or duties that fall solely within their remit. Whether it is to attend a particular meeting on a given day, or to upload certain information to an internal system, their tasks will often be personal to them.

To ensure there is no significant impact on the business due to outstanding workloads, employers should ensure there are regular catch ups taking place between managers and employees to ensure they have up-to-date knowledge of what the employee is working on. After all, only with this knowledge will managers be able to allocate employees to cover the tasks which need completing, or decide what can be left until the employee returns.

As soon as possible after the notification of absence has been received, managers will need to proactively review the absent employee’s workloads and seek to manage this. As well as using another employee to cover certain matters, or leaving non-urgent tasks until their return, they may also need to delay meetings which has a resulting impact on others within the business, so early notice will be appreciated. Care should be taken, however, to avoid uncompleted tasks building up for when the employee comes back to work because this could result in the employee returning, feeling overwhelmed, and recommencing their sickness absence within a short period.

As part of this, to help employees pick up tasks, managers can consider spending time cross-training employees on key tasks which must be carried out each day to ensure the business can run smoothly. Having a small number of employees who have knowledge of the key parts of their colleague’s workload can help avoid any detrimental impact on the business. In addition, this prevents the need to recruit agency workers to cover these key tasks, saving the often considerable expense that this incurs.

The impact on colleagues

Managers need to ensure they are available to provide extra support to the colleagues of the absent employee during their time off work, especially where this is a smaller team or the period of absence is expected to be lengthy.

Where team members are asked to cover some of the absent employee’s work, managers need to ensure they still have sufficient time and availability to complete their own tasks. Overloading other team members with too much work could have the opposite effect, whereby they take sickness leave because they have been overwhelmed and stressed.

Managers will also need to be wary of, and be able to react to, any instances where sickness absence has led to a breakdown in team relationships and left employees with a negative impression of their colleague. Although sharing of confidential information should not take place, managers need to communicate news of the employee’s absence in a manner which remains supportive and does not create feelings of resentment. Managers getting stuck in and taking on some of the work themselves will also help maintain a positive and “can-do” attitude towards this absence.

The impact on managing absences

All businesses are reminded of the importance of recording and monitoring absences;, however, some may feel that this takes too much time away from day-to-day management issues so they let this lapse.

A practical step employers can take is to introduce a streamlined absence recording system, and remove the paper records. Such a system will allow managers to easily review the absence levels for a particular employee or within their team, and ascertain whether there are any patterns of absence or a pattern of reasons which could suggest the employee may be classed as disabled under the Equality Act 2010. This will then allow managers to identify and address matters such as persistent short-term absence or implement reasonable adjustments. Proactive management of issues such as this can reduce the levels of sickness absence as those who are persistently off work are informed that their absence levels are unacceptable. Additionally, a clearer recording system can help managers spot incidents of false sickness absence, such as an employee who regularly takes Mondays off after warmer weather, which can then help to carry out formal action to deter false absences.

The impact on the absent employee

Research has shown that absent employees are more likely to leave employment if their absence lasts for four weeks or more. Therefore, to reduce the practical impact on the business, employers need to ensure they are acting proactively to support the employee in returning to work when they are fit to do so.

Maintaining regular contact with the employee during their sickness absence is key to preventing feelings of isolation and being overwhelmed when considering a return to work. Consider an employee who is off work with work-related stress or poor mental health who feels that there will be a mountain of work waiting for them when they return, as well as thoughts that their colleagues may be unhappy with them or that they will be disciplined by their manager on their return. This can all add up to an extended period of absence or the employee failing to return, resulting in the permanent loss of a valuable member of staff. To prevent this occurring, periodic contact should take place where the employee is informed of updates, given reassurance about their work which is being covered, and reminded of the support that will be put in place in order to assist a return to work, whether this is on phased return, with reasonable adjustments in place, or in an alternative role.

As well as taking steps once the employee is absent, good employers will be acting proactively to provide support to employees to avoid them being absent in the first place. Introducing employee support schemes, such as Employee Assistance Programmes, can provide guidance, information and counselling to employees to help them with issues that would previously have led to periods of sickness absence. With early help provided by employer schemes and assistance, organisations will experience lower levels of sickness absence resulting in a lesser impact on their business.

Health Assured

For professional advice, including mental health and wellbeing issues, contact Health Assured, the UK’s leading employee assistance programme and wellbeing services provider on 0844 891 0350.