Sick leave and your bottom line: How to manage workplace absences

Employee absence is often one of the biggest non-recoverable costs to businesses.  It can lead to delays in task delivery and project completion, failures in communication and a loss of trust between employer and employee if frequent or long-term absences aren't adequately explained.

These issues are compounded by increasingly lean workforces that may find it difficult to absorb the workload of absent colleagues, or who may grow resentful if they are made to do so frequently or for long periods at a time.

For these reasons, managing absence should be an important priority for employers, but is one that needs to be handled carefully, taking into account the circumstances of the absence and the employee's personal history.

Provide clarity upfront

Every organisation should have a clear policy for how different kinds of leave are managed and the responsibilities an employee has in terms of providing notice and documentation around absences. 

Are workers expected to call if they plan to be absent or will an email or text suffice?  What is the threshold for when a doctor's certificate is required?  Ensure that your policy covers all these kinds of questions and make sure it is covered in all induction materials and made available to employees via the company intranet. 

We all accept that some sickness absence is inevitable and most absences are genuine, but simply having to call in at a set time and speak to their manager can discourage the employee who “doesn’t like Mondays”.

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Short-term absences

This will be the most frequent kind of absence employers have to manage, and is also the kind most likely to be abused by workers wanting to take a 'sickie' or sick day.  This is where your clear-cut policies will come into play, and as long as workers meet the criteria you've laid out for them, it’s easiest to simply accept the absence and move on with your day.

However, monitoring short-term absence, targeting those whose absence shows a pattern and ensuring that the correct recording and reporting procedures are followed can help reduce the risk of abuse and ensure that any underlying issues are exposed without too much damage to your bottom line.

For many managers, having a conversation with an employee about their absence can be uncomfortable and challenging

Long-term absences

Long- term absence cases can be more difficult, with many involving employees who have long- term health conditions, many of whom are long serving and highly valued. When they do need to take time off due to illness, a holistic approach to managing their absence, including their manager, HR, occupational health and external agencies, can ensure that they return to work as quickly as possible and with any adjustments they need already in place.

However, there will be cases where a return to work isn’t possible and these cases need to be managed to a conclusion as quickly and sensitively as possible. This means ensuring that the business follows both internal and legislative processes, whilst at the same time making sure that the employee continues to feel supported and valued.

For many managers having a conversation with an employee about their absence can be uncomfortable and challenging. They often don’t have the necessary skills to manage absence, so upskilling them is key to bringing absence rates down, with the resulting cost benefits to the business. How many managers, when conducting a return to work interview, have taken the employee to one side and said “let’s just say we’ve done this interview and I’ll tick the box”? This creates a barrier to managing absence and can impact on the attendance culture within the organisation. Line managers tend to know their employees better than anyone and so are key players in managing their attendance.

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Addressing absence trends 

Once the absence trends have been identified measures can be put in place to address them. There’s no point having a market leading approach to managing stress and anxiety if 90% of sickness absence cases are related to musculoskeletal disorders! Understanding the reasons for absence allows you to develop a proactive approach, based on preventing absence in the first place. This leaves you able to concentrate resources on the unavoidable absence cases.

Early intervention and ongoing management of absence cases is the key to achieving a rapid and sustained improvement. For example, an early referral for counselling to an employee assistance programme can minimise the absence of an employee who is absent for mental health reasons. Similarly, an in house physio service can mean a return to work quicker. This individualised approach, together with regular reviews of exiting absence cases, brings absence rates down, with the resulting impact on costs. 


Employers should make managing absences an important priority in order to minimise the impact to team engagement and cohesion, and your bottom line:

  • Ensure your organisation has a clear policy around how different kinds of leave are managed and responsibilities an employee has in terms of providing notice and documentation around absences
  • Monitor short-term absences to try and pick up any patterns which could signal abuse
  • Long-term absences should be managed on a case-by-case basis with sensitivity and regard for the individual's personal circumstances
  • Use an 'early intervention' approach when addressing absence trends
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