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How to avoid feeling sick when dealing with an employee’s illness

Published 22 November 2017

There are many matters employers need to handle with great care and sensitivity and dealing with sicknesses absence is one of them.

Whenever employees are off work there are cost implications and it can severely hit productivity.

A recent report revealed more than 300,000 people suffering from long-term mental health problems lose their jobs each year, costing the UK economy between £74bn and £99bn (1).

This is despite the fact that sickness levels are reportedly at an all-time low with just over four days lost to sickness per UK worker last year - the lowest since records began. (2).

Understanding and establishing the reasons for sickness absence, knowing how to deal with it and when the individual will return to work are crucial.

Where an employee appears to have a recurring illness that causes them to ring in sick every Monday, further questions may need to be asked. While a member of staff on a long-term sickness is likely to require far more understanding and support.

A return to work interview (3) can be invaluable in establishing the true cause of employee absence. It can help to identify any patterns of illness, abuse of the sick pay system and any preventable causes that can be addressed such as stress due to an excessive workload.

When an employee's level of sickness absence becomes unsustainably high, whether through its frequency or length of time, then an employer is entitled to take action.

If sickness absence is disability-related, either in full or in part, the individual is entitled to protection against disability discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 (4), irrespective of their length of service.

In dealing with any concerns it is important to have clear, recognised and effective policies in place. All staff should be made fully aware of the relevant procedures.

The Health and Safety Executive has provided guidance on what such policies should include (5):

  • your arrangements for recording sickness absence, as appropriate
  • provision of leave and time off to help return to work or to attend medical appointments
  • procedures for keeping in contact with staff on sick leave and what is expected from the employee
  • arrangements for return to work interviews
  • support returns to work e.g. in the form of adjustments to the workplace or changes to systems or hours of work wherever possible and redeployment where this is necessary;
  • agree return to work plans with everyone affected;
  • ensure that employees that have suffered ill health, injury or disability will be treated fairly, equally and consistently.

Where an employee is in breach of the policy further action will need to be taken. Whether it is an employee failing to provide notification of an illness, not staying in touch as required or having an excessive amount of days off due to ill health, the matter will need to be addressed.

There are some legal issues to take into account, but the policy should make it clear what action will be taken. It should highlight trigger points and the stages of the process that will used to address any concerns. In cases where there are repeated unexplained or unjustified absences this can be treated as a conduct issue and lead to disciplinary action and in some cases dismissal.

However, great care needs to be taken before dismissing an employee for sickness absence. The attendance record must be the reason for dismissal, the procedure used to do so must be fair and the decision must be reasonable in the circumstances.

An employee may claim unfair dismissal (6) if their sickness record is the reason. In such cases the focus will usually be on the procedure used.

The employer will need to be able to demonstrate it has acted fairly, and this can include: showing evidence of ongoing consultation; suitable warnings have been given; medical opinion has been sought and is up to date and has been fairly considered; and that reasonable adjustments and alternative roles have also been considered.



  1.  300,000 UK workers are laid off each year over mental health [Internet]. The Independent. 2017 [cited 2017 Nov 18]. Available from:
  2.  UK a nation of “mucus troopers” says TUC. BBC News [Internet]. 2017 Mar 10 [cited 2017 Nov 18]; Available from:
  3. The Cube 123 Albion Street. Managing staff absence - Step 1 [Internet]. 2013 [cited 2017 Nov 20]. Available from:
  4. Disability discrimination | Equality and Human Rights Commission [Internet]. [cited 2017 Nov 20]. Available from:
  5. Sickness absence - Example of what a written policy might contain [Internet]. [cited 2017 Nov 18]. Available from:
  6. Check if your dismissal is unfair [Internet]. [cited 2017 Nov 20]. Available from:


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