Latest figures show that working time lost to illness has reached a record high in the UK, and employment law specialist Furley Page is advising employers to ensure they have clear processes in place when it comes to managing employee absences.
Research by the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) published in October 2023 showed the highest sickness absence rate for over a decade, and an average absence rate of 7.8 days per employee.
Meanwhile, the latest official figures released by the ONS* show that a record 185.6 million working days were lost to sickness during 2022. Mental ill health and musculoskeletal injuries remain the most common causes of long-term absence, while long Covid is now the fourth highest cause of employee illness.
Patrick Glencross, a senior associate at Furley Page, said: “Sickness absence presents a host of challenges and problems for employers, including loss of productivity and increased pressure on colleagues who are covering for the absent employee. Sickness absence also has a very substantial impact on the wider UK labour market and UK economy.
“Sickness and absence need to be managed well in order to optimise the employee’s prospects of a successful return to work and to minimise the risks of potential claims such as for disability discrimination, unfair dismissal or personal injury which might be brought against the employer.”
The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) has recently updated its practical guidance on sickness absence.
The guidance advises employers on how to create a supportive work environment and culture to help keep absence rates down. This includes ensuring staff take breaks and holidays, and training managers to spot employees with a poor work-life balance.
Patrick continued: “Employees should feel confident that if they raise concerns, for example about workload, they will be taken seriously and offered support, and employers need to have processes in place to monitor absence records and to respond consistently to absences.
“Ultimately, it may be possible for an employer to fairly dismiss an employee on long-term sickness absence or who has a record of persistent short-term absence.
“To minimise the risk of a claim, it is crucial that employers carefully follow a fair process and address any potential disability issues.
“At all times, managers need to act sensitively and respond to the individual’s specific circumstances which can be time-consuming and challenging without the right processes in place.
“Having a clear and effective absence management policy, which is consistently applied, is the key to fairness and avoiding discrimination risks.”