Staff off sick? How to manage and reduce absence

Authored by Charlie Lawson.
4 min read
candidate and recruiter at job interview

Staff being off sick can be a tricky subject to tackle. Here CEO of BusinessHR Terry Edney tells you how you should go about it. Tune in to his webinar tomorrow (Tuesday 7 July 2015) to find out more. Over to Terry.

You may well find it daunting to discuss with an employee the reasons for his or her sick absence.

You may also think there is nothing you can do about absence and so you just accept it. As a result you only pay lip service to any policies and concentrate on working around the problem of the missing employee.

This approach not only results in increased costs but also puts the remaining employees under increased pressure.

Alternatively, acting positively to help the employee return to work not only has an economic benefit but also helps morale and overall productivity.

The foundation

The foundation for positively managing absence is having the right policies etc. in place.

For example, your absence policy should state how employees should report absence, how often they should do this, what evidence is required (e.g. self-certification forms, Fit Notes etc.) and your contract should include the right for you to send an employee for an independent medical examination.

Employees should be informed about the policy, especially during induction, and you should keep accurate absence records for all employees in order to prove consistency in your actions.


Your policies are valueless if you do not follow them consistently.

One critical element is the return to work interview which is a useful tool in several ways.

Firstly, it sends a clear message to all employees that they will need to account for their absence.

Secondly, it can help identify how you can help employees overcome problems that are resulting in absence

Thirdly, it can provide early warning of potentially serious health issues which may involve disability.

Long-term illness

Regular contact, handled sensitively, is vital for managing these situations and to ensure the employee feels part of the team and that you want to help him/her return to work.

You should consider using occupational health professionals.  The Government is currently rolling out its 'Fit for Work' programme which will provide limited free advice to employees and employers on how to overcome barriers for getting the employee back to work. 

Having such advice can be vital not only for minimising the absence but also reducing your risk of a legal claim.


In any sickness absence situation you should be aware that it may result from a disability.

This is defined as: "a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long term adverse effect on the individual’s ability to carry out normal day to day activities."

This is a wide definition and is another reason to involve health professionals in these more difficult situations. They can help you make the ‘suitable adjustments’ required under the law to help the employee return as soon as possible.


A widely held management myth is that in cases of stress you should not cont act the employee. In reality, you not only should you contact the employee but – it is essential.

This needs to be done sensitively and in a way that is not seen as overbearing. However, the goal is to get the employee back to work and so you need to have a dialogue in order to achieve this goal.


Employees can be fairly dismissed on the grounds of capability, when the absence gets to a stage where an employer can no longer tolerate it.

Dismissal must be a last resort after you have made every effort to work with the employee to get him/her back to work. 

You must ensure you are informed about the employee’s illness and its likely ongoing impact and have taken up-to-date medical advice just before making your decision.

Pro-active absence management

The goal of proactive management is to reduce absence, get employees back to work quicker and reduce the risk of an employment tribunal claim.

Achieving these goals depends on having the right policies etc. in place, and having managers act positively and consistently. The result can be increased productivity and generally improved morale.

Hiscox provides a range of business insurance including employers' liability insurance – to find out more visit our business insurance section.

At Hiscox, we want to help your small business thrive. Our blog has many articles you may find relevant and useful as your business grows. But these articles aren’t professional advice. So, to find out more on a subject we cover here, please seek professional assistance.

Charlie Lawson

Having spent 4 years at Hiscox, Charlie is a Development Underwriter for Hiscox Direct Commercial. Her responsibilities include underwriting, products and pricing to our customers directly, both online and via our customer experience centre. Previously, she worked for the Hiscox Broker channel in London and has also spent time in the claims and finance teams, as well as being seconded to underwrite in the San Francisco office.