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Dealing with Absence at Work

31st March 2015 | Barry Cushway

This is an edited extract from The Employer’s Handbook 2015-16 by Barry Cushway.

The Employer's Handbook 2015-16 (9780749474133)

The absence of staff from work causes obvious problems of productivity, especially when such absences are unplanned. The smaller the company, the greater the effect. Reducing unplanned absence should therefore be a priority of any company.

Planned absences

Many absences are legitimate contractual and legal entitlements. These include:

  •          annual holidays;
  •          public holidays;
  •          attendance on training courses;
  •          maternity and paternity leave;
  •          parental leave;
  •          adoption leave;
  •          time off to care for dependants;
  •          time off for jury service;
  •          time off for public duties;
  •          time off for trade union duties and activities;
  •          reservist training;
  •          attendance at health and safety committees or works councils;
  •          bereavement or compassionate leave;
  •          layoffs or short-time working;
  •          suspension on medical grounds.

You should have policies covering most absences and including:

  •          what time off is allowed;
  •          which absences will be paid and which unpaid;
  •          the procedure for agreeing time off;
  •          how much time off will be given for particular events;
  •          actions that will be taken if the facilities given are abused. 

Reducing unplanned absences

To manage absence effectively and to keep unplanned absences to a minimum you need:

  •          information about the numbers and frequencies of absences;
  •          procedures to ensure that all necessary processes are in place to enable you to control absences;
  •          policies to encourage high levels of attendance.


You should keep the following information on employees:

  •          number of days of absence of individuals;
  •          number of spells of absence;
  •          reasons for absences;
  •          whether absences are certificated or uncertificated;
  •          employee details.

You should note that, following the Data Protection Act 1998, you need to make employees aware that you will keep records of sickness absence and get their express permission for you to keep such records. 

Procedures to reduce absence

There are a number of procedures that you should introduce and actions that you should take as a manager to keep unplanned absences under control. You should:

  •          produce clear written guidelines to employees for reporting absences;
  •          train managers and supervisors in handling absences;
  •          ensure that those managers and supervisors take responsibility for controlling absence;
  •          set targets for absence levels;
  •          interview those returning to work after absence;
  •          try to identify likely poor attendees during the selection process.

Return to work interviews

One of the most effective ways of controlling absence is the return to work interview.

You should:

  •          make a point of discussing any absence with the employee on his return to work;
  •          make it clear that he was missed;
  •          adopt a friendly and interested tone;
  •          if any problems arise from the meeting try to ensure that these are addressed.

The purpose of the meeting is to:

  •          find out the reason for the absence;
  •          find out whether there are any particular problems and, if so, what action
  •          is being taken to address them;
  •          find out whether the employee has consulted a doctor (if the reason is sickness);
  •          review any other recent absences;
  •          welcome that person back and inform him about work developments;
  •          offer support where appropriate;
  •          agree any necessary actions.

A meeting is also valuable during sickness when an employee has been off sick for some time as it is important to show that the company continues to take an interest and to try to find out when a return to work can be expected. Generally your tone at any such meeting should be supportive, unless clear problems or a particular pattern have emerged, in which case you may need to be more formal. The whole emphasis is on getting the employee to reduce the level of absence, or to return to work at the earliest opportunity, but you should not allow someone to return before being fit to do so, as all employers have a duty of care to their employees.

Policies to encourage good attendance

There are a number of policies that should be introduced, and actions taken by you to try to ensure that attendance levels are kept high. You should:

  •          provide good physical working conditions;
  •          carry out risk assessments and ensure that health and safety rules and procedures are followed;
  •          ensure that all staff receive the appropriate training, especially when working with machinery or in a hazardous environment or when undertaking physical activities;
  •          review working arrangements where there are high levels of absence;
  •          ensure that there is adequate training of supervisors and line managers, particularly in relation to maintaining motivation and morale;
  •          ensure that, where possible, there are opportunities for promotion and/or development;
  •          where possible encourage teamworking, as peer group pressure can help toencourage good attendance;
  •          operate flexible employment policies such as flexible working hours andjob-sharing;
  •          focus on outputs and performance targets, rather than just attendance hours;
  •          where possible provide crèche or childcare facilities;
  •          agree reasonable absences for emergencies and medical appointments,bearing in mind that some of these rights are enshrined in statute;
  •          consider the introduction of programmes to promote good health;
  •          consider redesigning jobs to relieve people of high levels of monotonousroutine or stress.

You could consider financial incentives to encourage good attendance. However, there is little firm evidence that these have a long-term effect and they can result in staff complaining that they are penalized for being ill. Probably the best type of incentive is something along the lines of a full attendance draw, in which employees with full attendance over a certain period may be entered into a draw for a prize, such as a holiday or cash. This has the merit that it stresses the importance the company places on good attendance and it cannot really be said to penalize those who are sick.

You can find out more about dealing with absence at work including: how to develop a sickness policy, how to develop an absence reporting procedure and how to determine pay during absence by ordering a copy of The Employer’s Handbook 2015-16. 

Save 20% when you pre-order your copy. Enter the code EHBB20 when prompted at the checkout. Buy here.

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