How to Manage Absence In The Workplace

All of us at some stage will experience ill-health; this can have a significant effect on an individual and the business.  The perceptions employees have when in this vulnerable state can have long-standing ramifications for the employer company.  We would all want to be treated sympathetically and with dignity.

Below are key points to consider for managing absence effectively.

The Importance of Work

Studies have proved that good work is essential to good health and wellbeing.

  • The longer people are off work the more likely it is that they will never return.
  • Other illnesses can occur due to isolation eg depression and anxiety
  • After only 6 weeks absence a person’s ability to return to work falls away and  1 in 5 will never return
  • Most people who permanently leave work are suffering from mild to moderate mental health issues or muscle‚ joint or back pain

The Manager’s Role

When someone has been off sick, it’s important to do a return to work interview because:

  • It helps facilitate recovery/disability by encouraging rehabilitation programmes
  • There is the potential to removes work-related barriers to a successful return to work
  • Managers can monitor performance which may be affected by poor health issues
  • If you have to face your manager when you come back to work, those who have been faking it will not enjoy the encounter.  Are they willing to pay that price?
A row of black figures set against a brown background in a row with one missing in teh middle, to depict absence from work
Managers guide to absence


How does this help improve attendance?

  • Because you are involving absent employees in planning their return – it’s not left to chance
  • You are ensuring disabled employees are supported – maybe you need to set up some changes to their work?
  • By doing a risk assessment you are protecting the worker from any new risks that could happen because of their health
  • Poor health can be managed and any work-related problems are sorted out.

When is a Manager’s help required

Not every illness requires a Manager’s attention – most illness is short term and people just return to their normal job with no issues. Some require assistance, especially if workers:

  • Become ill or injured and their performance worsens
  • Are already in poor health‚ stressed‚ and their condition worsens unless the work changes
  • Already have their performance affected and begin to have higher levels of absence
  • Are already on long-term absence and need help to return
  • Become disabled due to accident‚ injury or disease

Key Elements in the Return to Work  Process

  • Keeping in contact with those off sick‚ agree to who and when to have contact
  • Adjusting the workplace to keep people at work or help those returning to work
  • Making use of professional advice and treatment via occupational health
  • Agreeing and reviewing a return to work plan
  • Funding for some treatments eg counselling‚ physiotherapy
  • coordinating the return to work process

Occupational Health Referral

 Refer immediately if complaining of work-related issues eg stress or joints/muscle pains

  • Refer after 3 weeks for long-term absence with no date of return in site
  • Explain the reason for referral and ask the employee to sign a referral form
  • Explain the questions being asked of Occ Health and why
  • Consider any recommendations made by Occ Health‚ if in any doubt‚ ask for a case conference
  • Management makes the final decision after consideration of Occ Health opinion

Return to Work Interview

Use the easy to remember WARM approach:

  • Welcome back‚ be friendly and open‚ non-hostile ‚ focus on the individual and wellbeing
  • Absence discussion‚ (look at attendance record‚ count up days absence this year etc)
  • Responsibility for attendance at work (remind of the need to attend‚ business needs‚ how important their job is to the success of the company) 
  • Move on – update on what’s happened in their absence‚ allocate their work for the day/week ahead


If the employee is distressed, stay focused‚ give the person time to recover and reassure them you are listening

  • Find out if they need external support
  • Arrange another meeting if necessary but recognise that there May be limits to what you can deal with personally
  • Special training may be needed to deal with tragic circumstances or severe illness

The Equality Act

Remember you are legally required to make reasonable adjustments to work if an employee becomes disabled.

Risk Assessment

You need to do a risk assessment under UK law of your business activities. This prevents harm to the workers. Risk assessments are particularly important if there is a significant change in an employee’s health, making them more vulnerable to injury or harm.

Permanent Ill Health/Incapacity

Unfortunately, there will be occasions when there is no reasonable adjustment or control measure that will enable an employee to return to their original job‚ in these cases it will be necessary to consider alternative employment.

More Help and Support

Today‚ there are about 300 mental health conditions alone; added to this are the thousands of other physical disorders.  Also, Managers rarely deal with capability issues. Occupational health services (if you have one) helps and advises in health-related matters. HR advises on practice‚ policy and procedure.

Or you want to know more about the fit note? Have a look  here: The Fit Note explained

If you don’t have access to either HR or occupational health, why not try searching online or calling for free professional advice here:

All will give free and impartial advice on how to manage absence and deal with organisation policy or individual case advice and your legal obligations.

See also my  return to work interview video

November 2018

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