Managing sickness absence

Written by
Changeboard Team

19 Jul 2010

19 Jul 2010 • by Changeboard Team

Increased absence levels due to recession

The economic downturn has inevitably had an impact on workplaces across the UK. Almost four in ten respondents to the CIPD's Absence Management Survey 2009 reported that the recession has increased their organisation's focus on reducing absence levels. 

However, 27% of employers had experienced an increase in stress-related absence, with stress being the number one cause of long term absence for non-manual workers. Workload was cited as being the top cause of work-related stress, with job insecurity causing stress in 13% of respondents' organisations. In January 2010, the CIPD's Quarterly Survey Report showed that 41% of employees feel they are under excessive pressure every day or once or twice a week.

Employee stress: what's the risk to business?

Managing the risk of stress in the workplace is essential, a fact recognised by respondents in the 2010 IRS Survey, Managing Stress at Work. 87% of respondents said that their organisations are increasing their stress management activities in order to deal with rising levels of stress. 

Employers who fail to do this risk falling foul of the law. Employers are subject to a myriad of legal obligations in respect of their employees’ health and well-being which arise not only from health and safety law, breach of which is a criminal offence, but from the law of negligence, contract and discrimination.

Health and safety law 

Stress is within the ambit of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974  which imposes a general duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. 


The Hatton case offers useful and practical guidance relating to an employer's potential liability for stress in negligence. One of the crucial questions is whether the stress-related illness is reasonably foreseeable in the particular employee. Damages are not limited by statute and can include compensation for pain, suffering and loss of amenity, along with past and future loss of earnings.


An employer may be liable for unfair constructive dismissal if an employee can show that the employer's behaviour towards the employee is so unreasonable that it amounts to a fundamental breach of the implied term of trust and confidence, entitling the employee to leave employment. Compensation for a successful complaint of constructive unfair dismissal can be up to £65,300. 


Suffering anxiety, stress and depression may be enough to ensure an employee is protected under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 ("DDA"), as long as there is a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities. Compensation for disability discrimination is unlimited. Employers also need to get to grips with the extent of their obligations under the Equality Act 2010 which will increase the scope of disability discrimination when it comes into force. 

Stress toolkits in the workplace

Businesses need to devise and implement effective tools for dealing with workplace stress, taking into account the Hatton guidance. These stress management tools can be both preventative and reactive. Preventative measures include training managers on how to manage stress in the workplace. 

Managers should be able to communicate effectively with their teams and, if appropriate be able to lead one-to-one discussions about issues likely to cause stress such as workloads, working hours, targets and deadlines. Businesses should also consider employee surveys, risk assessments, health screening and/or provision of health advice to its employees. Reactive measures include providing counselling services and other employee assistance programmes.

Effective strategies for managing sickness absence

Whatever the reason for sickness absence, effective strategies are essential to manage it properly. A capability management procedure is the appropriate mechanism for dealing with genuine sickness absence. The key ingredients for success are effective and properly communicated absence management policies which are backed up by a pro-active management attitude.

A short-term absence management policy should set out the levels of sickness absence which will trigger implementation of a consultation process with the employee. This should involve discussions with the employee, opportunity to improve attendance and consideration of whether medical evidence should be obtained.

Long-term sickness absence is usually the result of a serious condition, preventing an employee from returning to work. However, it can also be the result of poor management with employers often reluctant to address the situation, feeling that their hands are tied and that they are 'stuck' with an absent employee. However, this need not, and should not, be the case.

Employers should have a long-term sickness absence policy which comes into effect once sickness absence reaches a certain level. The policy should provide for consultation with the employee, opportunity to improve attendance (including consideration of any measures which would allow the employee to return to work) and obtaining specific resolution driven medical evidence. 

Employers should always bear in mind that an employee may be disabled within the meaning of the DDA and should take legal advice if necessary before making any decisions.

Supporting employees coming back to work

Supporting an employee back to work after extended sickness absence is essential to the successful reintegration of the employee into the workforce.

The employee's manager should hold a return-to-work interview on or before the employee's return, to discuss the employee's capabilities and any required support or special arrangements, including the impact of any advice contained on a 'fit note' (see below) supplied by an employee's GP. 

In order to assist the employee's return to work, it may be appropriate to consider a phased return to work or some other form of flexible working. Pay and Benefits can be adjusted while temporary work arrangements are being undertaken and therefore employers should not be discouraged from taking such steps because they feel the employee must return on full pay. In conjunction with this, it may also be appropriate to conduct a risk assessment and/or to refer the employee to occupational health.

The fit note

'Fit notes' were introduced in April 2010 and have replaced the old sick note system. They impact directly on sickness absence management and must be taken into account in an employer's absence management procedures. Unlike the old sick notes, a fit note may state that an employee is 'fit for work' taking into account specified advice. Although not binding, an employer should take account of the advice in its dealings with the employee and may have to consider a phased return to work, amended duties, altered hours and/or workplace adaptations.

It's easy to see why managing sickness absence is such a difficult issue. At the best of times, it requires an effective and pro-active strategy, but in difficult economic times, it's even more important, both for the health of their employees and the health of the business, that employers address it head-on.