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Managing staff absenteeism: Q&A with Mandy Fitzmaurice


HR consultant Mandy Fitzmaurice shares her insights on dealing with staff absenteeism and sick leave.

Research published in mid-2017 suggested that high levels of staff absenteeism is a big problem for three quarters of small businesses in the UK, damaging their profitability and team morale. Mandy Fitzmaurice, managing director of Bournemouth-based consultancy Purple HR, explains how to manage staff sick leave.

Why must owners address staff absenteeism if it’s an issue for them?

Mandy Fitzmaurice (MF): “It’s not just the cost of sick pay (SSP), it’s also the impact on other team member’s workloads – and probably the business owner’s. And if the reasons for absence aren’t genuine, others might think it’s OK to dive back under the duvet when they feel like a day off. Unwarranted staff absenteeism is like a nasty infection – it can spread and it won’t go away unless you treat it. As well as losing money, it can affect your ability to keep customers happy, while you can also lose good people who get fed up of frequently having to cover for absent colleagues.”

Employees can have perfectly valid reasons for their absence?

MF: “Of course they can, we all get sick and there can be other genuine reasons for absence. Managers must find out why their staff are absent. Back-to-work interviews, even for short periods of absence, are recommended. Workplace issues, such as being overworked, stressed or problems with colleagues can also lead to absence. Employers have a duty of care, so you should understand why someone has been absent and address any problems where possible.”

How hard is it to prove unwarranted staff absence?

MF: “It can be difficult, but there can be tell-tale signs and speaking to the staff member can reveal much. Make sure your systems enable you to record and monitor all staff absence – it’s very hard to deal with any problem if you don’t know it exists or how big it is. If you’re concerned about someone’s attendance, sit down and talk to them about it – don’t ignore or avoid the issue.”

Employees should know what’s expected of them?

MF: “Of course, you should tell them about sick leave when they join and remind them when necessary. Your employment policies and staff handbook should leave no doubt about why punctuality and good attendance is critical to your business. Your policies should clearly explain when staff members can be absent and how they should inform you. Staff should realise the consequences of poor or unwarranted absence.”

What about forms and sick pay?

MF: “Many employers ask staff to ‘self-certify’, which means filling out a form to explain their illness, which makes things more formal. For longer sickness absences [seven days or more], you can of course request a doctor’s [‘fit’ or ‘sick’] note, which should also be stated in your staff handbook. Sensitivity is advised with genuine medical issues. Make sure your staff know how much sick pay they’ll receive from your business, as well as their Statutory Sick Pay rights.”

What other advice do you offer?

MF: “Employers need reliable staff sickness policies, which should be applied consistently and fairly. Always conduct back-to-work interviews, find out why people have been off. Closely monitor short-term absence – it’s more common and can be more disruptive, expensive and difficult to manage. If feasible, consider granting flexible working to all staff, because it can better enable them to meet their responsibilities outside of work, which can reduce absence rates. All employees with at least 26 weeks’ service are entitled to request flexible working. Offering some unpaid leave can also help. You should discourage staff from coming into work when they’re not well enough to work, it can also be disruptive.”

What should I do about persistent short-term absences?

MF: “Depends why it’s happening, an employee might genuinely not be able to come into work, but if it’s for unacceptable reasons, deal with the matter informally to start with. Be clear about your expectations and give the employee the chance to improve. If they don’t, make it a formal disciplinary matter. This can lead to dismissal, but there are legal rules about dismissing staff and your policies should explain the process. If you’re in any doubt, seek professional HR advice.”

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