Employers who proactively deal with employee absenteeism, and focus on assisting employees to return to work, can reduce the impact of employee downtime and disruption to working arrangements.

We’ve previously discussed some key tips about handling non-work-related illness and injury.  This post focuses on the importance of taking a collaborative approach when managing frequent or prolonged absences.

Frequent or prolonged absences due to stress, illness, injury or other personal reasons can be a major cause of frustration for employers. However, there are significant risks associated with taking punitive measures against employees who may be genuinely unwell, illustrated in several recent decisions.

In our experience, approaching the issue from the perspective of understanding the employee’s condition, and assisting them to return to normal duties, can help the employer drive a long-term resolution of the issue, rather than approaching absenteeism as a disciplinary matter. This applies even when the employer suspects that an employee is “gaming the system”, and their stated reasons for absence are not genuine.

Employees are far more likely to co-operate and share information about their condition if they feel they are being supported. This information can be vital to help managers make decisions about workforce planning, and for discussions with the employee about any reasonable adjustments that could be made to their role. The primary driver when seeking to address absenteeism issues should be finding out the reason for the absence, and finding a way to get the employee back to work if at all possible.

This collaborative approach could alleviate some of the difficulties seen in a recent case in the Federal Circuit Court of Australia where a manager directed an absent employee to allow him to speak with her treating doctor. The manager sent an email to the employee, implying that a failure to agree could result in termination of employment. The Court was critical of the manager’s approach, found the direction unreasonable in the circumstances and found that the employer’s reason for asking to speak with the doctor was for the purposes of disciplinary action, rather than assisting the employee to return to work.

But this doesn’t mean that talking to an employee’s treating doctor is completely off limits. It can still be a helpful measure in understanding the reasons for absenteeism and the employee’s condition, and managing a return to work – the key is having a discussion with the employee first, and getting their permission. If the employee understands why the employer wants to speak with their doctor, and the types of questions the employer wants to ask the treating doctor, they may be more likely to agree.

Of course, not every case of absenteeism will be for genuine reasons and, if this can be established, then a disciplinary approach may be appropriate. The approach outlined above should help to establish whether or not the employee is absent for genuine reasons and, if the absenteeism is not genuine, support the taking of disciplinary action if it becomes necessary.

For HR practitioners and managers, this may involve a change of mindset in approaching issues of absenteeism but one that we think has the potential to produce positive benefits.