How sick is your business?

Time lost to staff sickness can have a crippling affect on the running of a small business. So how fit is yours and what can you safely do within the law to reduce absence levels?

How taking a firm line with intermittent absence can make a real difference to attendance levels within your business

Do you have a problem?

Looking at national absence levels can be a bit misleading. You may take heart if you see less than the annual average of 5 days lost per employee in the private sector (2010). But this data includes medium and large enterprises where there tends to be more flexibility around resourcing. If a typical business is losing more than 3 days per employee per year the impact can be crippling.

How far can I go in tackling absence problems?

The HR and legal professions are sometimes guilty of overplaying the risks in tackling absence. The focus is often biased towards the rights of the employee and highlights all of the things that you cannot do. As such, many businesses are put off and let the problem fester unmanaged.

Whilst you are right to be mindful of the legal framework within the workplace and the rights of your employees, these are balanced by the operational needs of your business. When it comes down to it Tribunal Chairmen will generally support a “reasonable approach” based on a legitimate business need.


Make sure you have an absence policy in place and one that covers absence management as well as entitlement to sick pay. Include a section that makes it clear how people should report absence and how their absence will be managed. Return to work interviews can act as powerfully as penicillin in those cases where it’s more of a “duvet day” than a genuine absence.

Critically the policy should distinguish between long-term absence, where there is often a single underlying medical condition and a keen awareness of disability discrimination legislation and intermittent absence where odd days crop up here and there for a variety of reasons and where the disciplinary procedure may be a legitimate tool.

Facts first

An evidence-based approach is essential if you are to establish reasonableness and the difference between long term and intermittent absence. So make sure you have an effective system for recording attendance.

So what is an unacceptable attendance record?

Your data will give you the average number of days lost to intermittent absence (exclude days lost to long term absence) and this makes a reasonable benchmark to assess against. For individuals who fall into this category your return to work reviews should explore whether or not there is a medical or other problem behind the poor attendance.

Once you are satisfied that you are just dealing with just poor attendance you can make individuals aware that you are looking for a significant and sustained improvement within a specific timescale. In 80% of cases, this approach works and it is rare that you will need to resort to issuing formal warnings.

Do attendance bonuses work?

Not in my experience. For me the requirement to attend is explicit within the contract of employment and once you start to pay bonuses for no sick days you start to undermine this principle. You also get into murky water around appearing to penalise people who are genuinely ill and you can end up forcing flu germs into the work place by enticing people to drag themselves in from their sick beds!

So what do the fittest workplaces have in common?

No surprises here that there is a massive correlation between leadership, culture and environment and attendance levels. When people feel they work in a comfortable environment, are well led, and make a meaningful contribution at work and get feedback on this on a regular basis, they take fewer ad hoc sick days!

If you have concerns about how to handle this type of issue in your business contact Mander HR on 0771 5326568 for specific advice.