Businesses have faced numerous challenges throughout the pandemic. As cases continue to rise, it is important that employers are aware of the different ways to managing sickness absence during COVID-19.
Our experts have collated 5 top tips to help and guide employers.
All employers should have an absence policy. Employees should be familiar with this policy and be aware of the communication rules. Reporting procedures should require the employee to call their line manager before their start time on the first day of absence, or each day for the first seven days of absence, and a medical certificate will be required by law for any absence over 7 days. It is a good idea to specify that the employee is required to call the employer on the expiry date of each medical certificate to provide an update. If staff are generally not reporting their absence correctly then it may be worth a polite reminder to all staff to review the rules.
Return to Work Meetings
A return to work meeting is a simple discussion with an employee to discuss the reasons for their absence. This is to check why the employee was absent, whether reporting procedures were followed, if medical advice was sought and what was advised. It also creates a documentary trail of the reasons for any absence.
Welfare Meetings or Calls
Where an employee has been absent for a month or longer, a welfare discussion should be arranged to understand more detail surrounding the absence. However, welfare meetings are not just for long-term absence situations. Where employers have the resources they should conduct such discussions with employees annually. This is particularly important for employees who are going through changes, such as working from home or new roles. Alternatively, if resources are an issue, the focus should be on employees who appear to be struggling, either professionally or personally. Sometimes early intervention can enable you, as the employer, to introduce support which can prevent or minimise absence.
If someone is struggling with repeated absences or long-term absence and has a medical condition then consider the need to seek medical evidence. This may be from their GP or an Occupational Health specialist. A GP report is likely to be more general in its nature and gives an overview of any conditions and medication. An Occupational Health report is normally more expensive but also more detailed and will consider the employee’s ability to do their particular job, as well as any recommended reasonable adjustments.
Address the Problem if it Continues
Short-term, intermittent absences are normally a conduct matter and should be dealt with differently from long-term absence situations which are a capability issue. Employers should be cautious to check whether any health conditions are causing the absence as the employee may have a potential disability. If an employee does have a disability it does not mean you cannot discipline them for poor absence, but it does mean that you are under a duty to consider reasonable adjustments which may make it unreasonable to discipline or dismiss.
In long-term sickness situations it can be reasonable to terminate employment on the grounds of ill health (capability) but employers should be mindful that employees with over 2 years’ service can challenge a capability dismissal. An employment tribunal will generally look to check that the employer considered medical evidence to show that the employee was unable to return to their role in the foreseeable future, even with any reasonable adjustments, and that there were no other alternatives available (such as a different job perhaps).
Employers need strong procedural foundations to manage absence and it is equally important that they are used and followed.