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Managing recurring sickness absence

What can a business do if its staff repeatedly fail to turn up because they're sick?

Last week the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that sickness is at its lowest levels since records began in 1993, with an average of 4.3 days per worker. But this is an average, which means there are still those taking significantly more sick days. So what can a business do if its staff repeatedly fail to turn up because they're sick?

The starting point is that there is a common misconception that all employees are entitled to company sick pay if they're ill. Their only entitlement is to statutory sick pay (capped at £88.45 per week) and only after the first four days (including non-work days). Anything else is a matter of contract between the employer and employee.

Historically companies used to be able to reclaim statutory sick pay in the same way as with statutory maternity pay. But this stopped in April 2014. This means there is always going to be a cost to employers if their employees are off sick for more than four days, whether they pay company sick pay or not.

Statutory sick pay is only available to employees and not workers such as those on zero-hours contracts or working in the ‘gig’ economy. This is resulting in staff with minor illnesses potentially turning up to work to ensure they continue to earn. Colds and flu can quickly pass among the workforce and can affect those with underlying conditions, such as asthma, to a much greater extent.

An employer must offer a safe place of work and if an individual is suffering from a contagious illness that might pose a risk to the health of the workforce, or where continuing would exacerbate their condition, the employer should potentially send the sick employee home. If the employee is not going to be paid then they might object and insist they are fine and have a right to work. If they get a doctor’s note that says they are fit to work then an employer will have to pay them to stay away.

Offering free flu jabs to stop flu spreading is often successful. Also some employers have helped reduce sickness rates by offering bonuses to those who take fewer sick days and allowing a certain number of ‘duvet days'.

Ultimately, an employer is entitled to rely on an employee coming to work. If an employee has taken significantly more sick days than others then, unless it is pregnancy- or disability-related absence, an employer is entitled to take action. The starting point is return to work interviews for every sickness absence.

If that does not improve attendance then the next stage is warnings. To maintain trust and confidence it's important employers make clear they don't disbelieve an employee. What they are saying is that they need to be able to rely on that person to come to work and if they are having significant periods off sick this could end in a fair dismissal on notice.

Long- term sickness is entirely different and before dismissing an employee the employer must take specialist medical advice, looking at reasonable adjustments and alternative roles.

Positively promoting wellbeing in the workplace at every opportunity is fundamental to the future success of any organisation. As the saying goes: ‘prevention is always better than cure', and looking after an employee’s health will certainly reap long-term rewards.

Beverley Sunderland is managing director at Crossland Employment Solicitors