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Managing absence from work, handle with care

Published 08 October 2018

There is an old saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder… but when it comes to employment matters absence can certainly make your mind wander.

What’s going on, what’s going to happen and what can I expect?  Are all questions you may ask if absent from work for any period of time. There can be some uncertainty about how it will be managed.

Absence management is about cutting employee absenteeism, which may be as a result of illness or injury, by using fair and established policies and procedures.

Different organisations have different names for the procedure and you may find it referred to as an attendance management policy, which does not sound as negative.

The annual CIPD survey explores a range issues including absence in UK workplaces. It was formerly known as the Absence Management survey but it is now called the Health and Well-being at Work survey, and among other things it monitors absence management trends (1)

The research findings published in May (2018) revealed attendance and absence trends and patterns:

  • The average level of employee is 6.6 days per employee per year.
  • Absence is highest in the public sector (8.5 days compared with 5.6 days in private sector services).
  • Return-to-work interviews are the most popular method of managing absence.

The most common causes of minor and short-term illness resulting in employees taking time off from work include colds/flu, stomach upsets, headaches and migraines.

Managing any type of absence correctly is important and it can prove to be cost effective.

In 2017 workplace absence was said to be 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 current cost and predicted rising cost of workplace absence helps to emphasise the importance of effective absence management. How it is managed may vary from employer to employer and each will have its own standards.

However, what should be consistent and clear is what is expected of employees and what is considered unacceptable in terms of attendance.

The policy for addressing concerns about an employee’s attendance should be fair and consistent. This will enable management to deal with absence and let employees know exactly how it will be measured.

All employers have a duty of care to their employees, which means that they should take all steps which are reasonably possible to ensure their health, safety and wellbeing (3).

There should be provisions in place to support employees and methods for reducing absence. The return to work interview is an effective way of doing so. It helps to create a dialogue between employees and managers early on and allow for provisions to be put in place before a situation escalates and becomes a bigger problem.

Details in relation to the type of sick pay an employee will receive should also be specified in the policy. It should be made clear if an employee will receive company sick pay or Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) (4) for any period of illness.

The policy should also explain what happens when absence becomes a problem and when disciplinary action may be instigated. Many employers now use the Bradford Factor (5) to identify when absence is becoming a problem.

The Bradford Factor is considered effective when dealing with short-term absence, but a different approach is needed for long-term illnesses.

In such cases good communication with the employee and understanding the nature of illness and its impact is essential. To do so an employer may need to make a referral to occupational health

When all options in relation to managing an employee’s attendance have been fully exhausted an employer can invoke the disciplinary process, and as long as it is fair and non-discriminatory, dismiss the employee.


1. Health and well-being at work [Internet]. CIPD. [cited 2018 Oct 1]. Available from:

2. FirstCare. Cost of Absence to UK Economy Rises to £18 Billion - Press Release Service [Internet]. [cited 2018 Oct 1]. Available from:

3. An employer’s duty of care can manifest itself in many different ways. Find out more | Acas workplace snippets | Acas [Internet]. [cited 2018 Oct 1]. Available from:

4. Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) [Internet]. GOV.UK. [cited 2018 Oct 1]. Available from:

5. Bradford Factor Calculator | Online Bradford Factor Calculator [Internet]. [cited 2018 Oct 1]. Available from:


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