Often employers feel helpless when dealing with employees’ frequent short-term absences, which have a significant disruptive effect on staffing levels and productivity.
For manufacturing employers, it can mean you are scrambling to find appropriate cover at the last minute. You either have to dig deep into your pockets to hire an agency worker or place the burden on others who have to pick up the slack. Either way, it is a strain for the business.
So what can you do?
Firstly, it is important to have a clear and robust sickness absence policy, which sets out trigger points for unacceptable levels of short and frequent sickness absence.
A lot of manufacturing clients use the Bradford factor score. This means that more weight is given to the numbers of absences instead of the duration of the absences, so a high number of short absences – which are often more detrimental from a productivity perspective – will score much higher than fewer longer absences.
Your policy should lay down what happens once those triggers have been met and how if there is no clear improvement, this may result in dismissal.
Manufacturing environments will often have a very diverse workforce, so make sure that those workers whose first language is not English understand the policy’s contents. You can consider having the policy translated into their mother tongue or having a translator present during their induction or any subsequent training sessions.
Secondly, you should carry out a return to work interviews after each and every absence. It provides you with an excellent opportunity to probe into why they were absent. Were they away from work because of an illness? If so, are they fully recovered or is it part an ongoing health condition? Does it raise the duty of reasonable adjustments? Is there anything work-related which is contributing to absences? Are there any other measures that can be taken to prevent absences in the future?
These interviews send a clear message that you are actively monitoring absences and that if they are malingering, action can be taken.
Thirdly, you should not be afraid of seeking medical evidence. If you think someone who takes frequent and persistent short-term absences suffers from an underlying health condition, you can seek a medical report from a GP or an Occupational Health Officer.
Remember that if you wish to make an application to see an employee’s medical report, you need to inform the employee in writing of your intention to make this application, notify the employee of all their rights under Access to Medical Reports Act 1988 and receive the employee’s explicit, written consent. Employees can give their consent or decide to say no. If they do decline, you should ask them why and explain that you will need to make a decision on the information that you do have.
Also bear in mind that under the GDPR, which comes into force on 25th May 2018, it is necessary to ensure that you have a lawful basis to process this sensitive personal information, which may include obtaining the employee’s explicit consent to do so, along with complying with transparency rules in this regard. More details can be found on the ICO’s site, here.
Finally, you need to investigate any alleged misconduct. If you think that the employee is malingering, do not rely on gossip or speculation. You need to carry out a well thought out investigation to ascertain the facts. Data protection and human rights law means you should take care how you use covert recording and social media when investigating.
Managing persistent, short-term absences is notoriously difficult, so seek legal advice at the earliest opportunity to discuss your specific workplace challenges.