Employment Advice

Sick leave reaches record levels – what can employers do?

A recent study carried out by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, in partnership with Simplyhealth, has found that UK workers are taking more sick days than at any point in the last 10 years.

20 Oct 2023

Team name
Esther Marshall

Esther Marshall

The research looked at sickness absence in over 900 UK employers, who together employ around 6.5 million employees.

Prior to the COVID19 pandemic, the average number of sick days per employee each year was 5.8. The average over the past year has risen to 7.8 sick days. The most common reasons for short term sickness absence were minor illnesses, musculoskeletal injuries and mental ill health. More than a third of employers reported that Covid is still responsible for a large number of sick days. Mental health and musculoskeletal injuries are also the caused of much long-term sickness absence.

Sickness absence needs to be properly handled by employers for many reasons. The health and welfare of employees should, of course be a priority in and of itself. However employers also need to consider the operational and financial implications of high levels of sickness absence. These may include being unable to meet commitments, having to pay for short-term cover and / or outsourcing work. Staff morale can also be negatively affected, particularly for those employees who feel that they are being left to “pick up the slack” when colleagues are absent.

All employers should have a robust and effective sickness policy in place. Such a policy should highlight the need to explore at an early stage the reasons behind sickness absence, and whether the employee requires support or assistance.

For example, if an employee who works from home is absent with a back problem, is their home work station adequate? Could a different chair or desk resolve the problem? If the employee is absent due to mental ill-health, is there anything the employer can do to assist?

Of course, if there are no underlying reasons for sickness absence, the employer may wish to take steps to improve attendance and again an effective sickness policy will allow the employer to do this. Ensuring that a fair procedure is followed, including consideration of whether the employee meets the requirements to be considered disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, is essential before any disciplinary action is taken.

M&P Commentary

Esther Marshall, employment law specialist with Mullis & Peake LLP, said:

“It is becoming ever more apparent that the impact of the pandemic is still being felt by employers and employees alike. Many employers still require staff to stay away from work if they have Covid, which leads to short term sickness. Another result of the pandemic is more employees working from home, which can lead to mental health issues if staff feel isolated and unsupported. Added to this, the current cost of living crisis is affecting the mental health of many employees.

Employers should ensure that their sickness policies are fit for purpose by having them reviewed by a specialist employment lawyer. In the event that there is a need to take action against an employee in regard to sickness absence, again taking expert advice at an early stage will mitigate against the risk of a future Employment Tribunal claim.”

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