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By LegalEdge News

Dealing with absent staff

Recent research carried out by the CIPD and Simplyhealth reports that employee absence in the UK is higher than at any time in the last 10 years. The survey found that on average staff took 7.8 sick days in the past year, up from 5.8 days before the pandemic. And it suggests that one of the main reasons is mental ill health. 

Many companies will be grappling with the impact of increased absence levels and how to deal with them. Which takes significant resources. And, if badly handled, could result in legal claims.

So here are some dos and don’ts for managing staff on sick leave.


  • Consider what you can do to help staff with their physical and mental wellbeing. What support / benefits can you provide? There are some fantastic resources available. 
  • Where staff are absent, keep in touch, but check how much contact an individual wants and how they want to receive information. For example, there is no point sending emails if they aren’t reading them. Tailor your approach, depending upon the nature of the health problem, different people need different things. 
  • Make sure you have clear guidelines / a policy outlining the procedure for reporting absences and what is required when, from staff that are off sick, and from their managers, etc.
  • Conduct return to work interviews, even for short-term absences, to understand the reasons for the absence. This could help you identify problems early on before they escalate, and you can also offer support to those with issues outside of the work environment.
  • Make sure those that manage other staff understand how to deal with sickness absence, for example, conducting a return-to-work interview, making reasonable adjustments, etc.
  • Make sure employment contracts/policies set out pay and benefit entitlements during sick leave – to avoid misunderstandings and disputes.
  • Use the right processes for dealing with absences. Absence due to genuine ill-health does not justify action under a disciplinary policy, although non-genuine absence may do. Any long-term / recurring absences due to medical issues should be dealt with as a capability issue. However, persistent short-term absence for seemingly unconnected reasons can be difficult to categorise. Such absences can be disruptive for colleagues and the business, so should be dealt with. But you may want to take advice on the correct process.
  • Make sure information regarding staff sickness is kept confidential and in accordance with data protection requirements. Remember that personal medical data is sensitive and has greater legal protection.


  • Don’t ignore absent staff or put off engaging with them.
  • Don’t forget to keep absent staff up to date with important work developments – in the same way you would if they were on maternity leave or other family leave. An employment tribunal recently awarded significant compensation to an employee who was excluded from a work WhatsApp group, set up to share safety information, while on sick leave. 
  • Don’t overlook your duty to make reasonable adjustments to enable an absent staff member to return or remain in work. Examples include reducing working hours, changing working hours, removing some duties or even finding a different role for them altogether and making adaptations to space and equipment. Particularly where the absence is long-term, there is a high risk that the individual will be regarded as ‘disabled’ for legal purposes, triggering the duty.
  • Don’t dismiss someone for ill-health without following the correct process: it is likely to require obtaining at least one expert medical report on the prognosis for the individual as well as a significant amount of consultation with them to explore any viable alternatives to dismissal. Otherwise, it’ll likely be deemed unfair. And you must give the individual the right to appeal.


Good absence management will help balance supporting staff with health problems get back to work with the needs of the business and the rest of the workforce. The key is early intervention by line managers and pro-active but sensitive communication.

How we can help

We can advise on getting individuals back to work after absence, dealing with ongoing absences, training managers and putting in place effective policies, procedures and contract terms to make managing absent staff less tricky. 

Get in touch on to discuss how we could help you.

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