How to reduce sickness absence at work


Alex Pearce, employment law solicitor, advises what steps you can take to reduce sickness absence within your organisation.

The average British worker takes 4.4 days’ sickness absence every year and minor illnesses such as coughs and colds are often cited as the reason. However, more days are lost on average to more serious complaints such as back, neck and muscle pain.

High levels of sickness absence can lead to reduced production, low staff morale, increased costs and poor customer service. For small employers in particular, this can be very disruptive.

Sickness absence policy

You should have a sickness absence policy in place so that employees understand what is expected of them. It should set out your arrangements for sick pay and for reporting and managing sickness absence. It will help managers to deal with sickness absence fairly and consistently.

Monitoring attendance

You should also keep individual attendance records so that you can monitor absence and look for any patterns, such as the employee who regularly takes Mondays off, the employee who is often off-sick on the Friday before a bank holiday weekend or a particularly high level of absence in one department or team, which may indicate an underlying problem.

Measuring absence can show how much time is lost, where it occurs most and how often individual employees are absent, which will help you to address any issues.

Practical steps to reduce short term absence

You should require an employee to phone in by a given time on each day of sickness, such as within one hour of their start time, and to speak to a senior employee. They should state the reason for their absence and a likely return date. This can reduce the number of non-genuine absences.

Employees should also be required to complete a sickness self-certificate when they return, giving the dates of their absence, the reason and any medical treatment received.

It has been shown that the most effective way to reduce short-term absence, which is usually defined as less than one week, is to carry out ‘return to work’ interviews when the employee is back at work. This involves the line manager meeting with the individual on their first day back at work to discuss why they were off sick, whether they have recovered and if there are any underlying health or other issues which the manager should be aware of. This procedure often deters employees from taking time off when they are not genuinely ill. If the manager believes that the absence was not genuine or the employee’s absence has reached unacceptable levels, you should take disciplinary action against them.

Practical steps to reduce long term absence

If the absence lasts for seven days or more, the employee should be asked to call in once a week to update their line manager and to send in one or more fit notes from their GP to cover the whole period of their absence. The GP will advise if the employee is ‘not fit for work’ or ‘may be fit for work’ and may make suggestions to help the employee return to work, such as a phased return to work, altered hours, amended duties or workplace adaptations.

Where an employee is off sick for some time, you should request a report from their GP or an occupational health specialist. This will give you more information about the illness, the prognosis, a likely return date and whether you can make any adjustments to their role to enable them to return more quickly. This has been shown to be very effective in reducing long term absence. You should stay in touch while they are off sick to make it easier for them to return and you should meet with them before they return to agree the details.

Where an employee has been off sick for some time and is unable to return to work or it cannot be said when they might be fit, you may be able to terminate their employment but you will need to follow the correct procedure, which will include obtaining medical evidence. In addition, an employee on long term sickness may be classed as disabled under the Equality Act 2010 and benefit from extra protection so you should take legal advice in this situation.

Fit for work scheme

In September 2015, the government introduced a ‘fit for work’ scheme in an attempt to help reduce the costs of sickness absence to employers and the UK economy. The scheme allows GPs and employers to refer an employee who has been absent from work for four weeks or more for an occupational health assessment. It also enables GPs, employers and employees to access advice on health and work more generally. Only eligible employees can be referred for assessment and must give their prior consent to an assessment being carried out. 


For advice on sickness absence policies or any other employment law issues, please contact Alex Pearce in our Employment Law Team on or call 01708 229444 for advice. Pinney Talfourd is currently offering a free employment law review service to ensure your employment policies are legally sound and to advise on resolving any issues effectively. Take advantage of this offer and discuss your employment needs with one of our legal experts. Simply call 01277 211 755 or email to arrange a review.This article was written by Alex Pearce our Employment Law Associate at . The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. Specific legal advice should be taken on each individual matter. The law may have changed since this article was published. This article is based on the law as at December 2016.


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