26 Jun 2024

Sickness Absence Guide For Employers

It is essential that employers understand how to manage absence in the workplace in order to support your staff, whilst also minimising the impact on your business. This sickness absence guide outlines everything you need to know about managing absence.

Unfortunately, long-term illnesses or injuries can happen to any of us at some point in our lives, meaning most of us will be absent due to sickness during our working lives.

Absences have a significant impact on productivity within workplaces and have a direct cost to employers so for this reason it is vitally important that employers understand how to manage sickness absence.

Employers will need to find the right balance of offering support to those who are ill (including making any reasonable adjustments for disabled employees), whilst also ensuring employees do not contravene the rules. Below, we detail everything an employer needs to know about sickness absence.

How to deal with sick employees

The first step in dealing with any potential sickness absence issue is to create an absence policy. An absence policy can set out the steps that an employer will need to take when an employee is absent due to sickness, whilst also setting out clear expectations of the employee.

The policy should outline the following things:

  • The number of paid sick days employees are entitled to or of they are not entitled to any pay
  • Attendance expectations
  • Who and when to notify about the sickness absence
  • Details around when medical evidence is required
  • Reasonable adjustments – if the employee is allowed to work from home, or any phased return to work following sickness absence for example
  • What to do if you get to the point of considering dismissing your employee

The policy should also make clear what it defines as long-term sickness. Employers commonly define “long-term sickness absence” as lasting 10 working days or more but you can create your own definitions.

Q&A

What is Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)?

Statutory sick pay is paid to employees by their employer if they are sick and unable to work. Currently, statutory sick pay is:

  • £116.75 per week for a maximum of 28 weeks (Assuming you haven’t had any SSP during a linked period of absence in the previous 8 weeks)
  • Taxable
  • Is subject to eligibility conditions being met

It is paid for the days an employee would normally work if they were not ill – these are called “qualifying days”. It is paid in the same way as wages, on a normal payday, deducting tax and National Insurance.

Who is eligible for Statutory Sick Pay?

In order for an employee to be eligible for SSP, they must:

  • Be classed as an employee or worker
  • Have done work for the employer
  • Have been ill for at least four days in a row (including non-working days), or are self-isolating, or are sick absent due to a linked period of incapacity for work.
  • Earn an average of at least £120 per week in the 8 weeks leading to the period of sickness absence from work.
  • Give their employer the correct notice
  • Give their employer proof of the illness if they have been off for seven days or more (for under 7 calendar days a Self Certificate is usually required)

Some workers will also qualify for SSP as "employee" in the context of SSP. SSP entitlement includes all those whose earnings are liable for Class 1 National Insurance contributions (NICs), for example, agency workers and those who are on zero-hours contracts can be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay.

When do you need to start paying Statutory Sick Pay?

Employers must pay SSP when an employee is sick for at least four days in a row (including non-working days). The first three days are called “waiting days”. However, waiting days do not apply if the employee is self-isolating or in a linked period of incapacity for work.

If the employee works and then goes home feeling unwell, this does not count as a sick day – even if they only worked for one minute. For example, if an employee becomes sick halfway through the shift, the day after their shift will count as the first sick day.

How much sickness absence is my employee allowed?

How long an employee can be on sick leave from work before they can be dismissed depends upon the employer establishing that there is no reasonably foreseeable return to work, this will usually require some form of medical evidence (such as a GP report or Occupational Health report) in order for the employer to establish a genuine held belief that there was no reasonably foreseeable return to work. Employers are not expected to keep a sick employee’s job open indefinitely.

Extended period of absences can be costly for employers and potentially disruptive to your business. There is a balancing act between being supportive and considerate for the employee who is sick, whilst also considering how a long-term illness might affect the rest of your employees and customers/sales.

Can I ask for medical evidence?

If employees are off work for seven days or less, they do not need to give their employer any proof of sickness from a medical professional. Instead, when they return to work, an employer can ask them to confirm they have been off sick.

This is called “self-certification” and both employer and employee can agree on how the employee should do this. This can be via a “back to work” form or by sending details of their sickness on an email.

Generally speaking, for absences over seven days, employers can require their employee to provide medical evidence for the absence. This can be done in the form of a doctor’s “fit note” (formerly known “sick note”).

This fit note will detail the reasons why the employee is not fit for work. Employers can take a copy of the fit note, while employees keep the original.

Additionally, the fit note from the employee’s doctor or other medical professional, may state that they “may be fit for work”. If this is the case, employers should discuss any changes that might help the employee return to work. If there is no agreement on these changes, the employee may be treated as “not fit for work” again.

Can an employer contact an employee whilst off sick?

Yes, employers are allowed to have reasonable contact with employees while they are absent due to illness. Many employers are genuinely concerned with their employee’s health and would like to check in every now and then to see how they are doing. It is also wise to be kept up to date on the likely period of absence so employers can plan accordingly. It is also reasonable to ask for the reasons for the absence.

It is important that the contact is a good balance between the support and concern for the employee, the desire to secure a return to work as quickly and as safely as possible, while also giving enough space to allow the employee to recuperate without any unnecessary stress.

Getting in touch too often could seem overbearing and intrusive, and even result in allegations of harassment. Getting in touch too infrequently could leave the employee feeling isolated and devalued, while also leaving you unsure of the employees current situation and likely return to work information.

The amount you contact the employee will depend on the expected length of their sickness absence, the employee’s role, seniority, and the size and culture of your business. It might be that a regular telephone conversation once a fortnight may suffice if the illness is long-term.

Can I sack an employee while they are off sick?

Yes, employers can dismiss an employee whilst on long-term sick, but only after following a reasonable process. The potentially fair grounds for the dismissal would be on the basis of ‘capability’.

A fair dismissal process is required before any dismissal can take place, however. An employment tribunal will consider if an employer has followed the appropriate procedure, and will consider whether:

  • The medical evidence being relied upon was up to date
  • The employee was warned before they were dismissed, and therefore understood the seriousness of the situation
  • The employer was shown any medical evidence of the long-term sickness and, where there is medical evidence, if the employee was asked for their input on that evidence
  • The employee and employer disagreed on the medical evidence and, if so, if the employer could provide their own medical evidence
  • A partial return to work has been considered
  • Consider whether the employee could take up alternative employment or whether there are any other options that would avoid the need for dismissal
  • Where there is a private health insurance policy or Ill Health retirement policy in place, if there is, whether employer claimed under terms of the scheme
  • All the necessary steps have been taken by the employer to accommodate any disability (if one exists)
  • The employee was due to have any further treatment that might have improved their chances of returning to work

We would advise getting expert HR and employment law advice before considering dismissing someone who has been absent due to long-term sickness.

An employer can also potentially dismiss on the grounds of persistent short time sickness absence from work, normally this process would require moving through a process of warnings before a dismissal could be classed as fair. It is essential that a consistent approach is taken, following any absence policies the employer has in place. This absence management process is similar to a disciplinary in that it will need:

  • Investigation in the first instance to establish the facts,
  • Formal notice of an absence review meeting informing the employee of the right to be accompanied, giving the employee clear and detailed information on the number of absences and/or any patterns in absence and provide the employee with a copy all evidence being relied upon in advance of the absence review meeting.

In some cases, especially where the employee is ‘disabled’ in law this process/your absence policy may require reasonable adjustments.

How The HR Branch can help you;

Having an employee off sick can be a complicated and stressful time for both employer and employee. It’s important that an absence policy is in place to ensure your employees understand exactly where they stand when it comes to time off.

Employers also need to understand what they can and cannot do whilst an employee is off sick - their entitlement to statutory sick pay, how often to contact the employee, and whether or not you can dismiss them after a certain period of time.

The HR Branch has a team of highly experienced HR professionals who will advise and guide you through any difficult situations and navigate the employment law issues that may arise in these circumstances.

If you have a question feel free to contact our expert team by calling 01522 275105 or enquiring via our website here Contact Us - HR Branch (thehrbranch.co.uk).