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How to deal with absence management

Published 04 June 2018

Check up to ensure you have a healthy absence management plan to deal with time off.


An employer is likely to deal with a worker’s unacceptable absence at some stage and doing so properly can ensure the working relationship remains healthy.

It is inevitable that from time to time employees will fall ill, get injured and sometimes simply not feel like coming to work for any number of invalid or inappropriate reasons.

Handling the situation correctly is crucial and the benefit of having a clear, recognised and established absence management policy in place cannot be underestimated.

Such a procedure should set out how an organisation will measure absence and fitness to work and the steps that it will be taken to address any concerns in regards to both short and long-term absence (1).

It was reported last year that workplace absence is costing the UK economy £18bn in lost productivity. It is said to be part of a rising trends since 2011, which it is predicted will see the cost of absence increase to £21bn in 2020, and increase to £26bn in 2030 (2).

The benefit to having an effective absence management policy in place, to provide valuable guidance to address any concerns, is obvious.

Short- term absences

Are brief periods of absence lasting less than seven days and can sometimes be unauthorised or follow a pattern.

Some ailments will last only a day or two. The absence management policy should make it clear what is expected from the employee in such situations, for example a requirement to notify the manager as soon as possible in a telephone call.  

It is certainly no unheard of for an employee to call in sick when they just want a day off and there is in fact nothing wrong with them. Correctly handling and monitoring absences and the subsequent return to work can help to highlight any pattern in such absences, and enable an employer to deal with the situation appropriately.

An employee may need to take time off because of an emergency. In such situations good communication, a reasonable discussion, fair evaluation of the circumstances and some flexibility can be beneficial for both parties.

If the emergency is in relation to a serious family or personal problem the worker may be entitled to unpaid time off in accordance with the Employment Rights Act 1996 (3).

Long-term absences

In this situation a sympathetic, fair and reasonable approach to the matter is needed. Such absences will typically result from an illness, injury or a medical condition

There are also cases where an employee may seek to benefit from additional time off and drag out an absence; this can happen for example if they are facing disciplinary action.

Whether the reason for the absence is genuine or exaggerated, an employer should establish an agreeable pattern of contact to review progress and stay up to date with any developments. It is also advisable when the absence is long-term to make a referral to occupational health for expert guidance on how best to handle the situation.

Careful consideration also needs to be given to making reasonable adjustments if the employee has a disability, or what may potentially be considered a disability (4).

Taking formal action against an employee in relation to a long-term absence when there is uncertainty about when, or even if, they will return to work can be difficult for all concerned.

It was made clear in the Court’s ruling in O’Brien v Bolton St Catherine's Academy (2017) (5)that employers cannot be expected to wait forever for an employee to recover from illness when considering dismissal.

Dismissal for a long-term absence should be seen as a last resort having taken all reasonable steps - occupational health assessment,  obtaining a GP report and having considered reasonable adjustments – after which it may be fair to dismiss the individual even if they are disabled (6).

During such a dismissal procedure an employer must act fairly and reasonably and treat the employee with sensitivity.


1. Absence Management & Fitness For Work. 2008 Feb 14 [cited 2018 May 28]; Available from:

2. FirstCare. Cost of Absence to UK Economy Rises to £18 Billion - Press Release Service [Internet]. [cited 2018 May 27]. Available from:

3. Participation E. Employment Rights Act 1996 [Internet]. [cited 2018 May 28]. Available from:

4. Reasonable adjustments for workers with disabilities or health conditions [Internet]. GOV.UK. [cited 2018 May 28]. Available from:

5. O’Brien v Bolton St Catherine’s Academy [2017] EWCA Civ 145 [Internet]. [cited 2018 May 28]. Available from:

6. Dismissing staff: Dismissals due to illness [Internet]. GOV.UK. [cited 2018 May 28]. Available from:


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