Guide to managing short term sick absence

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This guide offers practical strategies for managing short-term employee sick leave, including policies and procedures, return-to-work interviews, monitoring and support mechanisms, and balancing compassionate leave with business needs.

Short-term sickness absences are inevitable in any business, but what might not be so clear is how to keep on top of them, to ensure they don’t become a recurring problem.

Why this guide is necessary

Managing employee sickness absence effectively often requires a sensitive approach, coupled with a good understanding of the law. It can also be difficult to strike a balance between supporting your employee and managing him or her to reduce the unacceptable absence levels.

Having an attendance management procedure in place is a straightforward way of reducing the impact of absence on your business.

It creates a framework for you to manage absence, and sets clear boundaries for your employees. A well drafted and communicated procedure will enable you to fairly and consistently manage your employee sickness absence.

There’s no legal definition as to what constitutes short-term sick absence, but typically it’s any period up to four weeks.


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Date last reviewed
1 June 2024
guide to managing short term sick absence

Guide to managing short term sick absence

Some employee sickness absence is unavoidable. Indeed, it is sometimes preferable for a legitimately unwell employee to miss work than to risk spreading his or her illness.

Short-term, intermittent, and persistent illness absence, on the other hand, may be disruptive and costly for organisations due to the management time necessary to address the problem and the cost of replacing hours missed with overtime or temporary workers.

This guide is intended to assist businesses in efficiently responding to short-term sickness absence by presenting them with all of the options available to help reduce absenteeism throughout the workforce to manageable levels. It contains guidance on:

  • How to guarantee that organisational illness absence rules are regularly and fairly applied.
  • Tools and approaches that line managers can use to keep short-term illness absence to a tolerable level.
  • Investigating various forms of illness absence, particularly those involving employees in protected categories such as pregnancy and handicap.
  • Monitoring illness absence patterns and identifying potential action points.
  • Considering what corrective action, such as disciplinary, should be taken.

Policy on sick absence

An organisation should have an appropriate sick absence policy in place. The policy should include the following provisions:

  • When and how to tell the employer if an employee is absent due to illness.
  • When an employee is obliged to provide a GP with a Statement of Fitness for Work (a 'Fit Note').
  • What pay will be provided when an employee is absent due to illness.
  • What process will be followed when the employee returns to work, including a return to work interview (RTW).
  • What further measures may be taken, such as having the individual assessed by occupational health or contemplating disciplinary action for short-term, intermittent, and persistent sickness absence.


The sickness absence policy should be implemented regularly in order to effectively manage absences and to prevent employees from claiming that they are being treated unfairly.

Employee sickness absence notification

An employee is normally expected to call a manager a specified amount of time before the start of their working day to confirm that they will be absent due to illness.

If an employee does not show up for work and does not call, a manager may call the employee to query as to why they did not show up.

The benefit of calling the employee is that the manager will know when the employee intends to return to work and will be able to schedule the task accordingly.

There is no requirement to contact the employee, and many businesses prefer to wait until the employee contacts them.

If an employee fails to follow the sickness absence reporting procedure, the manager should first determine the reason(s) for this failure upon their return to work.

Depending on the reason, it may be necessary to take additional action against the employee for failing to comply with the absence reporting policy. The employer must enforce such a policy consistently.

Self-certification form

When an employee returns to work, they should submit a self-certification form. The following questions should be included:

  • What was the cause for your absence due to illness?
  • How long was the individual absent?
  • Did the employee follow the notification process?
  • Was the absence connected to previous absence(s)?
  • Is there a chance this may happen again?
  • Is the employee fit to work?
  • Did the employee consult with their doctor?
  • What actions did the employee take to treat their illness?

Return to work interviews

A manager should conduct Return To Work (RTW) interviews with all of their workers after any period of sickness leave, no matter how brief. RTWs are extremely beneficial for the following reasons:

  • It is critical for emphasising to the employee that his or her absence is being managed.
  • The information provided will be valuable to a manager when determining the legitimacy of the illness absence.
  • Knowing that he or she would have to explain the reasons for the absence will cause an employee to reconsider whether or not they can really attend work.
  • Though managers routinely hold RTWs after any employee sickness absence, the employee will not feel as if they are being penalised.

Holding the RTW

Whenever possible, a RTW should be held on the first day back following the sickness absence.

An employee should be encouraged to talk openly at the RTW.

A RTW should be informal, brief and held in private. If an employee works remotely, then the RTW could be held over the telephone.

A manager should have any medical records held about the employee available at the meeting

In a RTW, a manager should be sympathetic and tactful, particularly when asking any personal questions. An employee should not be required to divulge information that he or she does not wish to; but on the other hand it may be appropriate to remind an employee that without such information, inaccurate conclusions may be formed

A note of the RTW should be kept on the employee's personnel file.

Standard discussion points in a RTW

In a RTW following a short-term sickness absence, a manager should always:

  • Welcome the employee back./li>
  • Check the employee is well enough to be in work.
  • Identify why the employee was absent from work.
  • Consider the information provided on the Self-Certification form and/or Fit Note, if relevant.

Additional points to consider in a RTW

It may also be appropriate for the manager to address other issues, which could include some/all of the following:

  • Establish if the employee's sickness was work-related.
  • Consider whether there are any health and safety issues the manager needs to address, including whether any new risk assessments are required./li>
  • Tactfully establish if the employee's sickness was related to any issues in the employee's personal life.
  • Consider if the employer can do anything to help, e.g. change of hours, lifestyle discussion (e.g. giving up smoking), training, request for a medical report.
  • Consider whether the employee's sickness absence is as a result of a disability (see later) and therefore, whether any reasonable adjustments need to be made (seek legal advice in such circumstances).
  • Consider whether an employee's sickness absence level is becoming a problem and whether it is appropriate to remind him/her about the formal disciplinary/capability procedure.

Is there a pattern to the sickness absences?

General patterns can sometimes emerge in employees attendance records. Research shows a number of common features:

  • Young people tend to have more frequent, shorter periods of sickness than older people.
  • Sickness absence is likely to be greater in larger working groups because it is less likely to be noticed.
  • Manual workers generally have higher sickness absence levels than office workers.
  • Office workers have higher levels of stress-related illness than manual workers.
  • New starters usually have a higher level of unauthorised sickness absence and work-related accidents due to inexperience.

Monitoring and analysing sickness and absences

An employer can measure and analyse sickness absence in its organisation to:

  • Assess whether it has a problem with sickness absence levels
  • Identify the types of sickness absences occurring; are there mainly shorter self-certified sickness absences or are there more cases of long-term sickness?
  • Highlight some of the underlying causes; for example are sickness absence levels higher in one particular team or at any specific time- e.g. after the month's end?
  • Consider individual employees' sickness absence records, for example assessing if an employee is often absent on a Monday or following a period of holiday.
  • Compare its sickness absence levels with those of other similar organisations.

Protected sickness absences

Not every sickness absence should be taken into account when assessing an employee's attendance record. Caution should be used and indeed, it may be inappropriate to even take a sickness absence into consideration, when a protected sickness absence has occurred; these can include the following:

  • Sickness absence in connection with an employee's pregnancy.
  • Sickness absence in connection with an employee's disability.
  • Sickness absence in connection with an employee's underlying health condition/s, which may in the future be serious enough to be classed as a disability.
  • Sickness absence in connection with caring responsibilities, which can include an employee taking emergency leave to care for a dependant.

What is classed as a disability?

Although only an Employment Tribunal can truly determine whether an employee is disabled under the Equality Act 2010, the following is taken into account when assessing disability:

  • The condition must be a long term condition (over 12 months).
  • There should be a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.
  • Conditions include severe disablement; facial disfigurement; cancer; HIV; chronic conditions such as multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis; mental health conditions such as severe depression and schizophrenia; and other conditions such as diabetes and epilepsy.
  • Conditions which are excluded include: addiction to/dependency on alcohol, nicotine or any other substance (other than in consequence of the substance being medically prescribed); hay fever (except where it aggravates the effect of another condition).
  • Even if the symptoms are managed by medication, the condition can still be covered.
  • If the employee is disabled the employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments, such as providing equipment and PPE, or adjusting working hours.

Setting trigger points

Trigger points for short-term sickness absences are where an employer declares that certain action will be taken when a specified level of sickness absence is reached.

Not all employers like the idea of using trigger points and there are arguments on both sides.

Advantages of setting trigger points

If an employer sets trigger points, then at least it has a benchmark to use as a guide.

Trigger points ensure that it is not just the more visible' employees whose sickness absences are noted and actioned

As a middle ground, trigger points could be used only as an internal guide for managers rather than published to the whole workforce. Managers can then consider the individual circumstances of the case and whether it is appropriate to take any remedial action, thereby retaining flexibility and discretion.

Disadvantages of setting trigger points

Trigger points can lead to a generally good employee being reprimanded/disciplined when he or she has suffered an unusual period of ill health.

Conversely, trigger points can lead to an employer being unable to reprimand an employee who has only had a few days off, but shows a very blase attitude to attending work.

Published trigger points may lead to an employee struggling into work when he or she is not well enough to do so. This may then pass on any infections, lead to poor work and even in some sectors (for example the care industry dealing with vulnerable clients) be dangerous.

An employer must be careful to ensure that no Protected sickness absences are taken into account when assessing if a trigger point has been reached.

Considering what is a 'reasonable' sickness absence level

It is important to be realistic when setting targets for employee attendance. ACAS states that many employers set their targets somewhere between five and nine days off per full time employee.

An estimated 149.3 million working days were lost because of sickness or injury in the UK in 2021, equivalent to 4.6 days per worker according to the Office for National Statistics.

The Bradford Scale

Trigger points can also be set using the Bradford Scale formula. Although the Bradford Scale is used by many employers, there are a number of disadvantages and risks associated with this method of absence monitoring.

The Bradford Scale formula gives extra weight to the number of periods of sickness absences rather than the number of days off sick and therefore, is particularly useful in highlighting problem short-term sickness absence.

Its formula is as follows:

Index (I) = S x S x H.

S = the number of sickness absences.

H = total hours absent in any given period.

What to do if sickness absence becomes an issue

If a manager is becoming concerned about an employee's sickness absence levels, then the first step is to hold an informal meeting with the employee. This could be incorporated within a RTW if the manager wishes. This meeting should include consideration/discussion of the following:

  • That the employee's sickness absence levels are becoming an issue
  • Any underlying reason for the sickness absence
  • Whether a doctor's report should be obtained on the employee
  • (If relevant) whether there is evidence of a pattern which might call into question whether the illnesses are genuine or self-inflicted (e.g. Monday mornings after busy weekends).

If there is no evidence of Protected sickness absences and the manager is not satisfied with the explanations put forward, the manager should inform the employee that unless there is an immediate and sustained improvement in the employee's attendance, the manager will have no option but to consider commencing disciplinary proceedings.

This meeting should be followed up in writing by a letter of concern, summarising the discussion.

Formal disciplinary action proceedings

Instigating formal disciplinary proceedings does not mean that the employer is disputing that the employee was genuinely off sick. An employer can be sympathetic to an employee's poor health, but it remains the case that the sickness absences are causing disruption and adversely affecting the business.

A manager should refer to the company handbook to consider which formal proceedings the company should follow - some employers follow a standard disciplinary procedure whereas others have a separate capability procedure to deal with problem attendance

In a case of problem short-term sickness absence, warnings would need to be given - starting with a formal verbal or written warning and eventually ending in dismissal.

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