Employers should feel comfortable to question employee absences provided that they approach initial discussions constructively. This was the key message from Lander & Rogers' Workplace Relations & Safety partner Daniel Proietto at a briefing event for employers.

Absenteeism costs the economy approximately $33 billion* each year in addition to staff resourcing issues and lower productivity levels, so it is not an insignificant issue for employers.

Traditionally employers have struggled to deal with employee absenteeism. However, when approached correctly, employers are able to address the issue with regularly absent employees and the first steps taken can go a long way to reduce absenteeism.

When an employee is using more personal days than their annual allowance, a return to work meeting giving the employee the opportunity to respond to concerns and considering reasonable adjustments should be a priority. Proietto recommends that the return to work meeting should be constructive, rather than disciplinary. The employer should enquire about the employee's welfare, without pressing them for sensitive medical information. The focus of the meeting should be on what both parties can do to reduce the employee's absenteeism.

Proietto said, "There is a wide legal framework protecting employees from adverse action and discrimination, so employers must ensure that they have met all their obligations. As well as showing that you care about helping the employee back into the workplace, a return to work meeting can help to ensure that you as an employer have exercised procedural fairness if it transpires that the employee has been dishonest.

"In our experience, mental health issues are often raised associated with absenteeism. Although allowances must be made for employees' mental health, employers should not feel unable to ask questions, test the validity of doctors' certificates, or seek further evidence."

Proietto advised that employers need to take a proactive approach to managing absenteeism. "There is a range of options open to employers to deal with absenteeism but any steps must be lawful. The best approach to take will depend on the particular circumstances of each case, but may include things like strictly enforcing notice and evidence requirements, or requiring employees to be medically assessed," he said.