David Castling: Managing sickness absence effectively

Small changes to sickness absence policies and the workplace set-up can make a big difference to employers’ sickness absence rates.

Employers seeking to limit and manage employee absence require a clearly defined absence policy, which strikes a balance between supporting the majority of staff whose absence is genuine and preventing those who might seek to exploit the business. This policy needs to align with an organisation’s business objectives and define employees’ rights.

A useful starting point for employers is the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which has a range of toolkits to help manage sickness absence. One of the tools, How do you deal with long-term absence?, says a successful absence policy should: provide a clear statement of expected standards of attendance; explain management commitment to the organisation’s absence policies, standards and procedures; and include systematic procedures for managing absence.

When producing an absence policy, it is important for employers to consult with managers, staff representatives and trade unions, if necessary. Employers should also provide details of their policy to their entire workforce; clearly communicate all terms and conditions of the policy, as well as details of contractual sick pay; detail who employees should contact if they are unable to attend work; and state when a fit note is required from a doctor. Employers can communicate their policy in a number of ways, including at team meetings and via leaflets and posters in the workplace, as well as through email or a work-based intranet site.

Role of line managers

Effective line managers play an important role in absence management because they are in regular contact with staff. In fact, good people management is often cited as a key part of a sickness absence strategy, along with early intervention and good communication with all parties involved, such as HR and occupational health.

Managers should be trained in all aspects of absence management, legal requirements, fit notes and how to conduct return-to-work interviews, which offer an important opportunity to communicate with employees, and understand and manage any underlying issues that may be causing their absence.

Sickness monitoring tools can help employers spot trends in staff absence and assess whether further action is necessary. The Bradford Factor is a recognised HR tool with which employers can measure employee absence and identify persistent short-term absence.

Private medical insurance

Employee benefits such as private medical insurance (PMI) can also help to reduce the impact of sickness absence by helping employees return to work more quickly. But organisations must strike the right balance between the benefits of PMI and the cost of implementing it for their business. Employers can limit PMI cover to, for example, certain levels of employee to help manage costs.

Home visits, reduced working hours, home working, flexitime, rehabilitation programmes and access to counselling services can also help employers support employees’ return to work. Some also provide group income protection.

Long-term absenteeism must be dealt with case by case. It is important to be supportive of staff and ensure they are aware of their options and the ways in which their employer can help. This can include occupational health involvement, counselling and risk assessments.

Ultimately, however, employers must recognise that sickness absence due to illness or injury will happen, but it can be managed by taking a proactive approach to identify the root causes.


  • The CIPD has a range of toolkits to help manage sickness absence.
  • Line managers and trade unions may be involved in creating and managing sickness absence policies.
  • Long-term absenteeism must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

David Castling is commercial sales manager at Engage Mutual Assurance