Top tips which are vital to good staff absence management.

There are several reasons why an individual might be absent from work. It could be because of genuine sickness (whether short or long term) or a period of maternity/paternity leave. On the other hand, you could be faced with an individual who simply decided not to come into the office for a few days and instead took a mini-break, only to return to work as if nothing has happened.

Having recently returned from maternity leave it has got me thinking about employee absences and, while some may seem obvious on first glance, tips that I consider are vital to good staff absence management.

1. Avoid being incommunicado

During any period of sickness or family related absence it will be crucial that employer and employee remain in contact. Whether it is to get a feel for when the employee may be returning to work, or simply for the employee to keep abreast of, and engaged in, any work related updates or changes while they are off.

A lot of employers are understandably uncertain about the best way to do this in practice because they do not want to be seen to be harassing the employee while they are on a genuine period of absence from work. On the other hand, keeping in touch regularly is central to sound business planning.

In my experience, the best way to achieve a balance is to agree with the employee a contact framework/timescale that works for both parties and then ensure it is followed. Some employees will prefer to make reactive contact – within reason – when they are ready to do so. Others will be keen to hear from the employer first. Either way, putting this framework in place sooner rather than later will provide welcome certainty for both parties.

2. Get to the bottom of the ‘why’

It may seem obvious but it is essential for the employer to understand why the employee is off, to the extent this is not clear.

I often get asked about the elusive employee whose exploits, plastered all over social media; have outed them as not being as genuinely sick as they first made out. The facts may point to this being quite a clear cut case of unauthorised absence – perhaps the employee phoned in to say they could not come to work as they had a broken leg and were on crutches; then the same evening they are spotted on Facebook dancing in a nightclub in Magaluf whilst balancing a bottle of vodka on their head.

However, first appearances could equally be deceiving. Take the employee who has been off work for ‘work related stress’ but who has been spotted by a beady-eyed colleague sunning themselves in Torquay, book in hand. Many employers assume this too is evidently unauthorised absence – the employee said they were off for genuine sickness when they clearly are not. However, it could be that, as part of the employee’s recuperation, they have been advised by their GP to get away from their home environment for some rest and relaxation. This could in fact be a case of legitimate and necessary measures with a view to facilitating a speedier return to work.

Getting to the bottom of the real reason behind the employee’s absence as a priority will, in turn, dictate how best to manage the absence. The unauthorised absentee who has no legitimate reason for being off may end up facing disciplinary proceedings. Whilst those absent for genuine reasons will most likely need a plan that will phase them back into the working environment in a structured way.

3. Implement a structured return to work process and plan

Both during and after all types of absence, employers often have to grapple with reintegration issues including handover, existing staff dynamics, business change and how the employee will fit back into all of this.

Let’s take the example of an employee who has been off for a genuine sickness absence.

In most cases and regardless of the length of absence it will be sensible, as an initial step, for the employer to meet with the employee on their return. This could be as simple as a quick chat over a coffee following a shorter absence for an obvious reason, such as a broken limb. Alternatively, it could necessitate a more formal and structured discussion for a longer term absence related to mental health issues so that the employer can better understand the employee’s condition. Such condition could, for example, amount to a disability protected under equality law and require that the employer gives proper consideration to what adjustments it might reasonably be able to put in place to facilitate the employee’s return.

Employees who are returning from a period of family friendly leave will have, more often than not, already returned to work from time to time during their leave using Keeping in Touch days or similar. Regardless, they may feel more secure and re-integrate quicker if a structured and supportive return to work plan is discussed and put in place. For those employees, their working pattern may also be changing and the return to work discussions, as well as any structured plan, may also need to reflect this.

4. Keep employee informed of any changes without delay

This ties in with Tip 1 relating to keeping in touch. Often when an employee is off and there is an imminent process or business change in the pipeline, e.g. a redundancy process affecting the employee, there is a temptation to wait until the employee returns to work to engage them in any such process. This may well be sensible if the employee is off on sick leave and is due to return in the next week or so.

But if they are on longer term absence, waiting could be flawed. It may serve to heighten an employee’s feeling of isolation and result in disengagement if they are not involved, to the extent appropriate, as soon as such developments kick off for the rest of their colleagues.

It is useful to remember that an employee who is on family-related or even some instances of sick leave is not ‘untouchable’ and sometimes it can mitigate the employer’s risk to treat them in the same way as other comparable staff. Out of sight should not mean out of mind.

5. Review progress regularly

It is important to bear in mind that good absence management – of any kind – is an ongoing process and, like all robust processes, should be kept under review.

Diarise regular chats and always follow up on discussions so there is a sound record of them. This will help the employer to demonstrate they are acting reasonably by proactively managing the employee’s absence /return to work and should highlight any issues that might require follow up action at an early stage. It should also keep the employee engaged with their own absence/return.