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Coping with staff sickness

Curb non-genuine absence and get sick employees back to work sooner

Sickness absence - genuine or otherwise - can have a huge impact on profit and is especially problematic for small businesses. By putting effective policies in place you can help curb non-genuine absence and get sick employees back to work sooner, as Vicki Taylor finds out.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), sickness absence costs UK businesses �588 per employee per year - with each person taking an average of 9.1 days off sick.

Another study by law firm Peninsula found the vast majority of employees (94 per cent) admitted to "pulling a sickie" at some point during their career.

Quote�Sickness absence costs UK businesses �588 per employee per year�End Quote

With this in mind, employers might feel within their rights to be suspicious when employees ring in sick. But, of course, not all absence is because of employees taking "sickies". In fact, Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser at the CIPD, says employers should remember that the "vast majority of absences are genuine".

However, he also recommends being vigilant and putting policies in place to deter unauthorised absence.

Communication is one of the key measures that can help employers stamp out non-genuine absence. And it should be remembered that while a person might not be medically unfit for work, some absences could indicate an underlying problem, which you are only likely to get to the bottom of by talking to your employees.

"It might be that the person is struggling with their work-life balance or having problems coping with their workload," Willmott explains.

All businesses should put a sickness absence policy in place, outlining expectations, such as when people have to phone in if they are unable to work or when a doctor's note will be required.

It can also pay to keep records of when people are off sick. "Look for patterns of short-term absence," advises Karen Talbot, director of business development at Company Health Limited, a private occupational health and safety provider.

Odd days off

Quote�Frequent one-day absences might indicate that employees are taking unnecessary time off.�End Quote

Frequent one-day absences might indicate that employees are taking unnecessary time off, especially if these fall on specific days, such as a Monday or Friday or when the weather is nice, for example.

"Return-to-work interviews with people who have been off work can also act as a good deterrent and can result in a dramatic fall in short-term absence," Talbot adds.

These interviews are also recommended when employees have been off with genuine long-term illnesses, because they ensure that correct support and advice is given. "You need to know that you are not going to give an employee duties that are not within their medical capabilities or which could aggravate an existing illness," she explains.

There is also a lot to be said for making your company's position on sickness absence clear from day one. If employees know sickness absence is taken seriously, they are less likely to take unnecessary days off.

Something else you can do at the outset, Talbot believes, is to carry out pre-employment health checks.

"This is legally sound, but it is highly advisable to enlist the help of an occupational health professional to make sure the questions you ask are non-discriminatory and that they are assessed by a qualified person.

"It can be extremely beneficial, because if you discover someone has a history of back pain, for example, you would think twice about giving them heavy lifting to do without assessing the extent of their complaint and ensuring that a risk assessment in the workplace has been carried out. It also sends out the message that you are proactive when it comes to managing sickness absence."

Where next?

The Health and Safety Executive and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development both have information about managing sickness absence.

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