Leave and absence

It’s said absence makes the heart grow fonder, but that’s rarely the case when you’re managing employees

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Monday, Jul 08, 2024

The unpredictability of staff absence can make it a challenging HR task—and a costly one.

The average UK worker is absent almost seven days annually, costing employers an average of £554 in sick pay. Yet although 87% of organisations collect absence data, less than 40% monitor its cost. (Source: CIPD 2015 data.)

"What's measured improves."
— Peter F. Drucker, founder of modern management

Through absence management, you can seek a balance between supporting your employees' wellbeing and taking firm, fair action against sick pay abuse. A range of methods can help you measure absence, understand how it’s affecting your business, and manage it effectively.

Understanding absence at your organisation

Not all employee absence is the same. The reasons workers take time off fall into three broad groups:

  • Authorised absence includes annual, family and education leave. It’s usually managed through the employment contract.
  • Short-term sickness and long-term sickness are often the primary concern of absence management policies. Minor illness is a major cause of absence, while around a quarter of businesses say non-genuine sick absence is a problem (CIPD 2015).
  • Unauthorised absence includes persistent lateness that costs working time. It’s usually managed as an employee conduct issue.

Measuring lost time

By measuring the lost time, you can understand the extent and cause of absence issues. Useful measurements include the lost time rate (the percentage of possible working time lost to absence), the frequency rate (the average number of absence periods per employee) and the Bradford Factor (a method of identifying persistent short-term absence for individuals).

Creating an absence policy

A clear absence management policy helps employees understand their sickness absence rights and responsibilities. Rules on sick leave and pay form part of your employment terms and conditions, so you’re legally obliged to inform employees about them.

97% of UK organisations have an absence policy (CIPD 2015).

You can also use an absence policy to support your absence goals and your workplace culture. Policies often include:

  • Rules for notifying managers about absence, when self-certificate forms and fit notes are needed, and return-to-work interviews.
  • How you’ll support employees to return to work through adjustments.
  • What you expect during severe weather and other major events.

Managing absence

When employees know what you expect, you can actively manage absence.

Short-term absence

Return-to-work interviews can help identify problems early.

Disciplinary procedures are effective for unacceptable absence.

Further methods utilise absence data to trigger attendance reviews and pay restrictions.

Long-term absence

A few long-term absences can easily account for a large proportion of total absence. That’s why it’s useful to have a formal return-to-work strategy, which can rehabilitate workers to return faster. Your strategy might include regular reviews with sick employees, planning workplace adjustments, and involving occupational health professionals.

Absence management and the law

Your approach should comply with relevant laws including the Equality Act 2010, the Access to Medical Records Act 1998, and the Data Protection Act 1998. If an employee becomes disabled, you might need to make reasonable workplace adjustments so you don’t discriminate against them.

Learn more about leave and absence

BrightBase is home to comprehensive HR compliance guides, opinion on the latest absence management issues and lots more essential reading.

Lucy Cobb

Employment Law Specialist

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