What should you do about recurring sick leave?

Sometimes recurring sick leave is unavoidable, but that doesn't mean you have to do nothing

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Wednesday, Mar 13, 2024

Almost every employee is entitled to paid sick leave. It’s what keeps your staff afloat during occasional periods of poorliness. But when an employee has recurring sick leave, it can start to affect business performance and team morale — and HR needs to act.

It can also be hard to spot. After all, two thirds of all workplace absence is short-term (Acas). But when you manage recurring sick leave effectively, you can make significant savings and get more done.

What counts as recurring sick leave?

In the UK, the average employee takes 6.9 days of absence per year, costing organisations a median of more than £550 per employee. Average absence in the public sector is around 50% higher than in the private sector (CIPD 2015).

Sick leave becomes problematic when an employee exceeds the amount deemed acceptable by your organisation. But that ‘trigger’ amount is unique to your company. You can base it on averages sick leave levels at your own company, or the national or sector average. You may set your trigger amount with the goal of either maintaining, or reducing, sick leave levels.

Record sick leave data

You can’t manage recurring sickness absence if you don’t record it. 87% of UK organisations record absence data with the aim of identifying problems and taking action (CIPD 2015).

You should record both the absence dates and the reason for absencereturn to work interviews can be useful in gathering data on absence reasons. Remember that sick leave is sensitive personal data, which should be handled in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998.

Get your absence management policy right

Having a written absence management policy is essential for two reasons. Firstly, it enables you to plan and communicate your strategy for managing recurring sick leave, and lets line managers know how to implement it.

And secondly, a written policy fosters consistent and fair treatment of all employees across your organisation. This is vital, because employees should never feel victimised or singled out because of their sick leave. The vast majority (94%) of UK companies do have a written policy (CIPD 2015).

Methods for managing recurring sick leave

Effective methods for dealing with recurring sick leave focus on discovering the reason behind it and taking action to solve the problem.

BrightHR's HR Software can help you record all instances of when an employee took sick leave.

Return-to-work interviews

Return-to-work interviews are an excellent way to:

  • demonstrate that sick leave is being actively managed at your organisation
  • ask the employee about the reasons for their sick leave, so you can offer support if needed
  • collect expanded data on short-term absence reasons

Line managers should prepare for each return-to-work interview by reviewing the employee’s attendance and previous interview forms. This provides an ideal opportunity to spot recurring sick leave trends, and raise appropriate concerns.

Trigger mechanisms

Trigger mechanisms are among the most commonly-used short-term absence management methods in the UK (CIPD 2015). As discussed above, you should set the ‘trigger’ level of absence days or spells to meet the needs of your organisation. When an employee reaches the trigger level you can:

  • carry out an attendance review, in which you discuss the employee’s reasons for sick leave and offer support where needed
  • issue a warning or start formal disciplinary procedures if their recurring sick leave has become unacceptable

Providing support

Sick leave is a sensitive issue. Absence management methods should not make staff feel punished for being unwell. In the majority of cases, employees’ reasons for taking sick leave will be genuine — in which case, the best way to get them back to work is to support and encourage them.

After identifying an employee’s recurring sick leave and reviewing their attendance with them, consider:

  • Special circumstances such as disability or an ongoing medical condition
  • Support you can offer such as workplace adaptations or referral to external services
  • Regular one-to-one reviews to discuss the employee’s progress

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