Staff are the foundation of any business, and when their absences are taking a toll on company profits, morale or workloads, it’s time to reevaluate your approach. Managing sick days, no-shows and prolonged absence can be a sensitive subject, but it’s essential to get right, both for the happiness and well-being of your staff, and for the business’ bottom-line.

Regardless of whether your business has a large workforce or a small one, constant absences and periods of long-term leave are disruptive. Tackling staff absences needs to happen from the ground-up: work out why members of staff aren’t coming in, and make any changes to address this. Looking at the employment contracts you have in place will also ensure you protect your company, as will investigating long-term and frequent absence periods. As a last resort, there’s the choice to hold a thorough capability meeting.

Managing employee absenteeism can be a minefield if not done correctly. You need to be careful about HR law, basic employment rights and any staff absence policies the company may have in place. However, there are plenty of avenues to take before seeking the help of HR consultants or HR and employment support services. Your employer rights will have sections dedicated to long periods of absenteeism, and will dictate the best route to take.

The basics

Monitoring absence levels is vital in order to keep track of who is off and how often. Your sickness absence management policy should be robust, and include detailed notes of communication between staff and managers. A certain level of communication is necessary, and should span the entire absent period. This absence record should be applied to all employees.

In the UK alone, staff absences cost the economy £17 billion a year, as well causing damage to services and company reputation, reduced morale, and putting unnecessary pressure on existing employees.

You should understand the role that doctors hold when enabling employees to return to work, as well as ensuring that you are doing all you can to promote a healthy, safe workplace. Think about the workplace, your business culture, and working patterns.

Changing company culture

There are several things you can do to ensure your office is somewhere that employees want to be.

Firstly address the working conditions: are they safe? Do they promote physical and emotional wellbeing? Are your employees sat, stood or moving properly? Are you doing all you can to ensure their comfort and health are a top priority?

Secondly, what is your company culture like? If it is open, where employees feel included and valued, it will generate a different kind of workforce than if it is unsupportive. Employees who feel valued and listened to by managerial staff are more likely to have more loyalty and higher morale.

Make your workplace somewhere that employees want to be, both in terms of the design and layout, and atmosphere.

Addressing absenteeism from the bottom

Before you take serious actions, consider how you can make your employee more likely to change their mentality. This will not only prevent the situation from reoccurring, but will ensure you’re ready to tackle it head on if it happens with a member of staff in the future.

Consider if there are any adaptations that could improve the employee’s perception of the workplace: this may be altered layout, different equipment or a tailored desk set up. Next, think about whether a phased return-to-work plan may help the employee feel more valued and not pressured into returning. If you can make the transition smoother, it will lead to better overall feelings about the company.

Don’t be afraid to have open, honest discussions – the more frank you are with each, the better it will be in the long run. These discussions will allow both you and the employee to voice any concerns, address any problems and come to a solution that suits both parties.

Next steps: medical notes

If a member of staff is still taking regular sick days, or is on long-term sickness absence, you can start an investigation into their health. You can compile a letter to the employee requesting their permission to speak to their GP or consultant about their illness or injury. If you receive the employee’s consent, you can then liaise with their medical consultant about the queries you have.

You should ask for the diagnosis, the recommended treatment, and final prognosis. Once you receive this report, the final outcome is down to you. The report may outline that the employee will never be fit for work again, or that they can return tomorrow.

The content of the report will decide what happens next: this could include bringing the employee back to work; calling a meeting to discuss their future; changing their duties to suit their current capabilities; or, dismissing the employee.

If the employee refuses to provide their consent for you to contact their doctor, seek further assistance with a HR consultant, as you may have to make a decision based on the information you have now. To comply with employee rights and laws, it can be difficult, especially if you are looking to ask the employee to leave the company.

Capability meetings

Capability meetings are required when dealing with long-term absences, and are purely used to retrieve more information – they are not decision-making meetings.  There are some basic capability meeting procedures you should know before holding one.

The outcome of a capability meeting should be to thoroughly understand the situation you are facing, the employee’s illness, prognosis, and both parties’ thoughts on moving forwards. A capability meeting is a good alternative route to follow if the employee has declined to let you speak with their doctor.

Give the employee a 48 hours notice in writing, and allow them to bring someone to accompany them.

Discuss their situation, and when they believe they will be ready to return to work. Clarify whether they will be able to continue with their original duties, or if the role should be adjusted to suit them. If no adjustments can be made, talk about whether there are any other positions that they would be better suited to. Let your employee know that you will be in touch, with the results of the discussion in writing.

Making decisions

Deciding what to do can be a stressful and unpleasant experience, so it may be worth seeking external help or guidance. When you feel you have reached a decision, let the employee know in writing, and outline the next steps that will be taken. This could be anything from a return-to-work date, or outlining their dismissal, along with acknowledgement of any outstanding pay.

Dealing with staff absence is all part and parcel of running a company, and the better your process is, the better the situation will be if you ever have to face it.