Tackling sickness absences in the care sector

Tackling sickness absences in the care sector

For all employers, absences are very disruptive.

In some sectors, if someone calls in sick, the work can wait. However, in the care sector, the work never stops. Care providers can be left floundering to find suitable cover at short notice and be forced to dig deep into their stretched budget.

Most of the time, the absences will be for legitimate health reasons. In fact, they may be necessary for the health and wellbeing of service users especially if the employee is suffering from a contagious or infectious disease. However, there may be times when someone is malingering, which is when an employee lies or exaggerates their illness or injury to avoid attending work.

Both scenarios present headaches for care providers, but here are some top tips when dealing with absences:

Have a sickness absence policy

The main aim of a sickness absence policy is to provide a clear framework for reporting, managing and recording sickness absence.

In your sickness absence policy, you should set benchmarks, known as trigger points, for unacceptable levels of short and frequent sickness absence.  You will also need a separate procedure for dealing with longer term sickness.

Setting out your expectations allows genuinely sick employees to know they will be supported during their absence and malingerers that you can – and will – take disciplinary action.

Monitor absences and keep records

By keeping a record of all absences, you can identify any patterns or trends and build a complete picture of the employee’s attendance. For example, you may notice that their absences always occur at the weekend.

Ask employees to follow your sickness absence reporting rules

Make it clear in your sickness absence policy how employees must inform you that they are not coming into work. Establishing clear rules means that you are informed of all employee absences; have more time to arrange cover and know when the employee is likely to return to work. 

Conduct return to work interviews after every absence

These interviews are a good way to probe into the reason for the absences and explore possible solutions.

If the employee was absent due to illness, you can see the nature of the illness and whether they are fully recovered or it is part of an ongoing condition. This will determine next steps.

If they are dealing with bereavement or some other serious personal concern, you can explore whether their absences could be reduced if they have flexible working arrangements in place.

If there is a workplace concern that is making them not want to come into work, you can take steps to address it.

If you suspect that they are malingering, return to work interviews may act as a deterrent as they realise that you are taking absences seriously. It’s also a good way to remind them what will occur if their attendance does not improve.

Ask for medical evidence

If you have vague or inadequate reasons for absences, you may wish to ask for medical evidence, but remember that typically you will need the employee’s written authorisation.

If they decline or are very reluctant to consent to medical evidence, you will need to probe as to why and if they have a good reason for refusing. If they repeatedly continue to refuse, you should write to them explaining that you will need to make decisions based on the evidence available.

Investigate any alleged misconduct

If you suspect that the employee is malingering, you need to conduct a well-thought-out investigation. This allows you to consider the matter fully before deciding whether disciplinary action is necessary.

Remember the Equality Act

There are different considerations to keep in mind when you are dealing with an employee who has a disability. Under the Equality Act, a worker will be considered disabled under the Act if they can show that they suffer from a long term (i.e. 12 months or more) physical or mental impairment which has a substantial (i.e. more than trivial) effect on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities.

A person will automatically meet the disability definition if they have HIV, cancer or multiple sclerosis, but if an employee suffers from stress, anxiety or depression, they may also be considered disabled for the purposes of the Act.

In these cases, you will need to consider whether you can make any reasonable adjustments, for example, if they are on long-term sick leave, you can consider allowing them a phased return to work.

If you have concerns about how to manage sickness absences, seek legal advice at the earliest opportunity.

Director of Legal Services

James Tamm

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