Introduction to this document

Sickness absence policy

Our policy statement sets out a detailed reporting procedure for both short-term and long-term sickness absence, including the provision of evidence of incapacity, consideration of statements of fitness for work, “return-to-work” interviews and home visits. It’s always worth expressly setting out these issues for all employees. That way, everyone understands what they need to do when they are off sick.

Short-term absences

In the case of frequent short periods of sickness absence, where it appears that there is no acceptable medical reason for them (a medical reason might be where the employee has a disability which flares up from time to time), the matter should be treated as a conduct issue and dealt with under the disciplinary procedure. In the case of a disability, you must make reasonable adjustments to the employee’s work provisions, criteria or practices to help reduce the substantial disadvantage which they would otherwise suffer as compared to non-disabled employees - and this includes making adjustments to any absence management policies which may require employees to maintain a certain level of attendance in order not to be subject to the risk of disciplinary action. Where sickness absence is believed to be entirely genuine, it’s better dealt with through a capability or attendance procedure rather than the disciplinary procedure, because the latter implies that the employee has deliberately done something wrong. However, whether genuine or not, you aren’t expected to tolerate frequent short-term absences indefinitely and so it’s possible to fairly dismiss an employee on the grounds of an unsatisfactory attendance record, provided that the level of absence is sufficient to justify dismissal and you follow fair procedures prior to dismissal (and subject always to the duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees and being able to objectively justify any discrimination arising from disability).

Long-term sickness absence

The law does not set a time limit after which it’s fair to dismiss an employee who’s absent from work due to long-term sickness absence. Each case will turn on its own facts, taking into account the requirements of your business, the size of the business and its resources, the role that the employee fulfils and the disruption that the employee’s absence is causing. In addition, if the employee’s medical condition amounts to a disability, they will have the protection of the Equality Act 2010. This protects the employee from less favourable treatment because of their disability (direct discrimination), or unfavourable treatment because of something arising in consequence of their disability and the treatment is not a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim (discrimination arising from disability). As mentioned above, there is also a duty to make reasonable adjustments to work provisions, criteria or practices in respect of disabled employees. As with short-term absence, it’s still possible to dismiss an employee on the grounds of long-term sickness absence without this constituting either an unfair dismissal or disability discrimination, but again the level of absence must be sufficient to justify dismissal and you must follow fair procedures, including obtaining medical evidence to support your decision and consulting with the employee both on the adjustments that could be made (if any) to enable the employee to return to work in some capacity and on the proposal to dismiss them.