Recording sickness absence and managing return to work

Putting in place policies and procedures to manage sickness absence and return to work does not need to be difficult.

There is already an established practice you can build upon. You may already have some elements in place but it is worth reviewing them for their effectiveness.

Some employees who may need help and support to stay at work include people:

  • who become ill or injured and whose job performance could be affected if their condition gets worse
  • already in poor health, or experiencing stress, and whose condition might be made worse unless the system of working is changed
  • whose condition already affects their job performance and may begin to affect their attendance
  • whose condition has resulted in long-term absence who need help to return 
  • who become disabled as defined by the Disability Discrimination Act

What does managing return to work involve?

There are six processes involved in effectively managing sickness absence and return to work.  These processes are as follows:

  1. recording sickness absence
  2. keeping in contact
  3. planning and undertaking workplace adjustments
  4. using professional or other advice and treatment advice
  5. agreeing and reviewing a return to work plan 
  6. co-ordinating the return to work process

Recording sickness absence

Using sickness absence data to manage return to work:

Obviously records will be kept for statutory sick pay purposes, but knowing who among your employees is off sick and why is also an essential information resource for the following reasons:

  • it identifies employees whose return may be delayed or prevented unless you intervene
  • it helps employees whose frequent absences may disguise other problems for example domestic issues
  • it helps you plan to cover the work of the staff member that is absent
  • it helps to check for patterns of ill-health that could highlight possible work-related causes, or the onset of disability 
  • it benchmarks your organisation's performance against competitors to judge whether your record is good or bad

If the organisation is very small you will be well aware of who is off sick at any one time. It is still important however to know why they are sick, in case the cause could be work related, or if reasonable adjustments are necessary to help them return. In larger organisations, analysis of sickness absence records can reveal patterns of illness or injury that could be caused by or made worse by work.  Examples of this are as follows: 

  • a number of cases of back, joint or muscle pain amongst employees who carry out a particular task
  • frequent minor but vague illness in areas where deadlines are very tight, workloads are challenging or employees have little control over their work

Early action can increase the chances of a quicker return to work significantly. Recording sickness absence daily and summing it up on a weekly basis will help keep the information accurate and prompt contact to be made with absent employees at suitable intervals.

The following minimum information that will be needed to help manage absence and return to work is:

  • name of the employee concerned and where they can be contacted
  • date of the first day of absence
  • cause of absence
  • whether the injury or illness is considered to be work related, once this is known
  • working days absent (updated regularly)
  • date employee last contacted and the outcome
  • expected length of absence, if known
  • return to work date

The sickness absence data that you keep has to comply with the Data Protection Act 1998. If an absence record contains specific medical information relating to an employee, this is deemed as sensitive data and you will have to satisfy the statutory conditions for processing such data.

Keeping in contact

Dos and don’ts for keeping in contact

Keeping in contact with absent employees is a key factor in helping them return after long-term absence. The line manager, the supervisor, or a human resources manager usually undertakes contact with those that are absent from the workplace.

Contact can be a sensitive topic as some employees may fear that they will be pressed to come back to work before they are ready. But without contact, employees who have been absent for some weeks may feel increasingly out of touch and undervalued. Physical and mental health can become worse, the employee loses self-esteem and their return is made more difficult for them and for the employer.

On the other hand, line managers may feel nervous about getting enough information from absent employees to plan absence cover and action to help them return, without appearing intrusive. Similarly it may feel uncomfortable talking to an employee whose performance, combined with frequent short-term absence, is causing concern. These are very real issues for which there are no hard and fast rules, but with the right approach you can handle them confidently.

Do:

  • take time to get to know employees and the things that affect their health, as this will help decide the kind of contact they would welcome
  • create a climate of trust by agreeing methods, frequency and reasons for keeping in contact with line managers and human resources managers, if any, and trade union or other employee representatives
  • consider training for managers and employees on a sensitive approach to helping each other get the most out of contact
  • consider the timing and form of contacts, and who should make them
  • take advice from the employee's colleagues, human resources managers or trade union and other employee representatives if you are unsure how to make contact
  • be flexible, treat each case individually, but on a fair and consistent basis
  • encourage discussion, particularly with trade union or other employee representatives about overcoming barriers to return
  • if the employee is able to travel, suggest they come in to see colleagues at lunch time or during coffee breaks
  • keep a note of contacts made
  • welcome the employee back to work after their absence
  • carry out return to work interviews
  • give employees the opportunity to discuss their health or other concerns that are affecting their performance or attendance in private
  • remember that medication can have side effects on things like physical stamina, mood, driving, machinery operation and safety critical tasks

Don’t

  • wait until someone goes on long-term absence to consider a contact strategy, but plan ahead in partnership with management and trade union and employee representatives
  • put off making contact or pass responsibility to someone else unless there are sound reasons for doing so
  • make assumptions about the employee’s situation or their medical circumstances
  • talk to other people about the employee’s circumstances without that person’s knowledge and consent
  • put pressure on employees to discuss their return before they are ready
  • say that colleagues or team mates are under pressure or that work is piling up 
  • forget that recovery times for the same condition can vary significantly from person to person

When and how often should contact be made?

Each case needs to be treated individually. When employees do notify a minor illness that is likely to end within or just after the self-certification period of seven days, further contact, except for certification purposes, is not usually necessary. A return to work interview however will be useful to get people back up to speed, or discuss underlying causes if such absence is frequent.

In circumstances of traumatic injury or sudden serious illness, extend your sympathies and use discretion until the longer term prognosis becomes clearer. Employees undergoing planned treatment may welcome hospital visits, particularly if you contact relatives first. If you are notified that employees are suffering from depression or a stress-related illness it is normally good practice to make contact within a week to show the organisation’s concern for them, but they are unlikely to be ready to discuss returning at this stage. Generally, it is advisable to contact sick employees as early as possible and certainly before 14 days go by.

If the employee is being treated at home, you may need to discuss with relatives or other carers the best time to make contact.  First contacts will normally be by phone.  It may be helpful to try to make home visits firstly for welfare reasons and then, at the right time to help plan for return to work.  Such visits should be carefully prepared with the employee's consent and in liaison with relatives or other appropriate people for example trade union and other employee representatives, human resources or occupational health professionals, welfare officers and employee assistance providers.

Getting the tone right

If absence management has been discussed with employees and trade union and other employee representatives in an open and constructive way, employees who are absent will understand that you need to use these contacts to:

  • assess what help can be provided, including reasonable adjustments in the case of disabled employees
  • find out when they will be able to return
  • get information to help you plan cover for their work in their absence
  • explain pay rates for their absence 
  • check their understanding of your absence management procedures

Make sure the conversation with the absent employee is clearly focused on their well-being and their return to work. Try to focus as much on what the employee can do as things they may need help with. Returning to work is an important milestone in getting life back on track, but if the employee is made to feel a ‘problem’ in some way, they will feel disheartened.

Absent employees can be encouraged to talk to their own doctor or other healthcare adviser about what they may be able to do as they make progress or adjust to their condition. This will help you to judge whether a gradual return may be the best way forward or whether other reasonable adjustments are more appropriate.

A vital aspect of keeping in contact is helping the employee stay tuned into work and the workplace. Keep them up to date with news, both informal and formal, about team mates and the workplace. They may appreciate copies of newsletters or circulars.

Unwelcome news, such as a reduction in pay due to continuing absence, needs to be delivered sensitively, stressing continuing concern to help them back to work if you can. Avoid unpleasant surprises by making sure that all employees, including new starters, are familiar with your absence management procedures, including pay rates for long-term absence and when disciplinary procedures might apply.

What if the absent employee refuses contact?

Make sure employees understand their responsibility to keep managers informed of the reasons why they are absent from the work for which they are employed and, when known, how long the absence is likely to last. The company or organisational rules need to set out clearly when and how to notify absence.

Employee reluctance to notify illness or keep in contact may be connected to issues that require sensitive handling. The employee may feel embarrassed about describing their condition. Other examples include illness related to difficult working relationships with managers or others, bullying, harassment or heavy workload. Ways of dealing with these in the short term, depending on the severity of the problem include:

  • making sure the employee knows who they can talk to other than their manager for example a human resources manager, or occupational health provider, if any
  • using trade union or other employee representatives as intermediaries, especially if there is an established bond of trust between the employee and the representative
  • enabling the employee to talk to someone of the same sex or religion, or at a neutral place, away from work and home
  • making first contact in writing, offering help with any problems at work
  • using an independent mediator

If bullying or harassment proves to be the issue, this will need to be tackled to identify the root of the problem in partnership with trade union and other employee representatives.  Staff need to understand that bullying is never acceptable and that sexual, racial and disability harassment are illegal.

 

Conducting a return to work interview

Interviewing your employee on their return to work gives you both an opportunity to confirm that the record of sickness absence is accurate and discuss any remaining health concerns that may affect work. This can range from an informal chat to establish that your employee is sufficiently recovered from minor illness, to putting the final touches to the return to work plan. It is also an opportunity to discuss any reasonable adjustments to work needed if the employee has a disability. The main thing is to listen well and be objective. The employee may wish to have a trade union representative or other employee representative present. Remember to ensure that the interview is accessible for disabled employees in terms of venue, language (for people with learning difficulties), and provision of support or equipment.

Frequent short-term absences for minor illness may mask worsening health, or stressful situations at work, abuse of alcohol or drugs or difficulties at home. These can lead to poor performance and more serious illness leading to longer absences if nothing is done. A sensitive and non-judgemental approach can help bring out any underlying problems. Ask questions, that cannot be answered by ‘yes’ or ‘no’ alone, about how they are feeling, how long any problems (inside or outside work) have been going on, whether others feel the same.

If stress at work is the problem, introduce controls to prevent harmful pressure building up. If balancing work and domestic demands are contributing to illness, consider what help, appropriate to the size of your business and its resources, you can offer to employees to help balance work and home demands for example a change in shift pattern, flexible hours or working from home, or encouragement to contact employee assistance counselling services, if provided, or external advisory agencies.