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Manage sickness absence in the workplace

Preventing and managing sickness absence is high on the priority list for many businesses. It’s no surprise as sickness absence can have a significant impact, whether it’s lost productivity, operational difficulties or simply the cost to management time.

Many businesses want to tackle this area but when it comes to doing so, find they have more questions than answers.

Manage sickness absence, stress-free.

1. How costly is sickness absence to businesses?

The number of working days lost because of sickness or injury was an estimated 185.6 million working days in 2022, a new record high according to Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures[1].

It will come as no surprise that sickness absence can be costly to businesses  –  not least due to loss of productivity, finding staff cover, and the cost of sick pay.

2. How can I prevent and reduce sickness absence in my business?

When it comes to sickness absence, prevention is better than cure.

Taking a few simple steps can help to reduce the likelihood of high levels of sickness absence occurring.

They can also help to put your business in a better position to manage any sickness absence issues that do occur.



  • Appropriately monitoring sickness absence levels can help you to quickly identify issues and address them appropriately. This can prevent matters from escalating.

  • Monitoring has the added bonus that employees are often deterred from ‘pulling sickies’ as they will be aware that attendance levels and patterns are on your radar – a bad case ‘Monday-itus’ will be easily spotted.


Policies and procedures

  • Check you have the policies and procedures in place your business needs to effectively support your sickness absence strategy.

  • Key areas to think about include, a clear sickness absence reporting process, certification of absence (self-certification for seven days or less, medical certification – usually a ‘fit-note’- for a longer absence), sick pay, and a long-term sickness absence policy.


Reducing internal risk factors

  • Bear in mind that sometimes sickness absences can be caused or exacerbated by issues such as workplace stress or bullying and harassment.

  • Reduce the risk of this happening in your business by making sure you have the policies and procedures you need, there is appropriate monitoring and support by managers, and that all your people have received appropriate training in areas such as anti-bullying and harassment.


Return to work interviews

  • The value of these to a business can often be overlooked. Return-to-work interviews don’t usually take too long and they are a useful tool to help you identify whether there are any ongoing or underlying medical issues or patterns of absences.


  • Return to work interviews provide an opportunity to open up a dialogue, you may obtain additional information about an absence or an employee’s situation that you would not otherwise receive.


  • Not sure how to structure a return to work interview or what to ask? Request a free return-to-work interview form for use in your business.


Management training

  • Managers are on the front line when it comes to sickness absence matters.

  • Confidently and effectively working with your business’s sickness absence processes and appropriately managing common sickness absence issues are a must.

  • Do you have the training you need? Whether you are starting your people management journey or are more experienced and would like a refresher, our bespoke business-focused training can help to empower you. 

3. Should my business have a long term sickness absence policy?

Yes – having a long-term sickness absence policy will support your business in effectively and appropriately managing such a situation if it arises.

It sets out the framework for managing long-term sickness, usually including preliminary actions, facilitation of a return to work, and a fair procedure for dismissal (where this is the appropriate course of action).

Find out more about our policy and procedure services for your business, and have your long-term sickness absence policy or any other company policy reviewed by our expert contract drafting team. 

4. What is classed as long term sickness absence and how long does it last?

This is probably one of the most common questions businesses have when it comes to long-term sickness absence.

If you’ve been struggling to find the answer that’s because, for employment law purposes, there is no exact definition as to what ‘long-term sickness absence’ is.

Generally, it’s reasonable to consider an employee to have been sick long-term if they have been off work for around two months or more. 

5. What are the reasons for long-term sick leave?

It will come as no surprise that there are many causes of long term sick leave. Figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show that the most common reasons for sickness absence generally in 2022 (the latest figures available at the time of writing) are:

  • Minor illnesses – these were the most common reason given for sickness absence accounting for 29.3% of occurrences

  • “Other” conditions – 23.8%

  • Musculoskeletal problems -10.5%

  • Respiratory conditions – 8.3%

  • Mental health conditions – 7.9%

With this information in mind, you may wish to think about what you can do as a business to support your people in relation to these areas.

For example, is there more your business can do to support good mental health in the workplace

6. How to manage long term sickness absence?

This can be tricky for businesses not only because it’s easy to make an error but because the individual facts and circumstances of each case need to be taken into consideration.

This will often influence what is reasonable and appropriate action to take and when.

As some employees who are on long-term sick leave will meet the legal definition for disability in the Equality Act, it’s important to be alert to issues of discrimination and to be aware of the duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees.

In broad outline, the initial steps of a long-term sickness absence process commonly involve:

  • Familiarise yourself with your business’s long term sickness absence policy

  • Have a preliminary welfare meeting with your employee to explore the reasons for their absence and the prospects of their return.

  • Where appropriate, seek permission from your employee to obtain a medical report (commonly from their GP although another source such as Occupational Health may be more appropriate depending on the particular situation).

  • As you would expect, employees have rights when it comes to your business wishing to obtain a medical report. Don’t inadvertently fall foul of the rules, we can help with advice and correspondence with your employee and the medical practitioner.

  • Have a second welfare meeting to discuss and consider any medical information received and where applicable, consider reasonable adjustments.

  • A fair long-term sickness absence process will involve consultation with the employee. Further welfare meetings should be held as appropriate.

It’s vital to seek advice on the facts of the situation you are managing prior to taking any action, particularly if you are considering dismissal as there are a number of matters to consider.

Long-term sickness absence process sounds too time-consuming or cumbersome? Get in touch to discuss more commercial options, such as our settlement agreement service for employers.

7. Long term sickness meeting questions – what do I need to know?

The exact nature of the matters you will need to discuss and the questions to ask will depend on where in the sickness absence process you are and the individual facts and circumstances of the situation you are facing.

However, there are some general points that you may wish to bear in mind:

  • Before any welfare or other sickness absence meetings make sure you are familiar with the facts of the case. This may sound basic but we all get busy, timelines can get confusing and it can be all too easy to find that something important is overlooked.

  • Think ahead about what points you need to cover, whether there is any additional information you need to obtain, and what questions will be appropriate to ask based on your situation. Remember to be flexible, the employee may provide you with some unexpected or important information, you will need to make sure you deal with any developments appropriately.

  • Make sure the tone of the meeting is appropriate, you are clear and easily understood, and that your employee has ample opportunity to put across any views, questions, or suggestions they may have.

  • Bear mind that if the meeting you are holding is intended to be a final meeting before a possible dismissal, there will be additional factors to consider, including in relation to the invitation to attend the meeting. Prior to making a decision the meeting should be adjourned to consider all relevant information. As the potential dismissal of an employee is a big step for any business, you should seek expert advice before taking any action.

8. Can I dismiss an employee on long term sickness?

It isn’t so much a case of whether you can dismiss an employee on long term sickness but whether on the facts of your particular case, it will be safe to do so, and if it isn’t, what your business’s appetite for risk is.

If your business is looking to safely dismiss an employee on long term sickness for capability reasons, you will need to consider whether the dismissal would be fair and reasonable in the circumstances and whether a fair procedure has been followed.

It will also be important to make sure that it is non-discriminatory and that there aren’t any other claims the employee could successfully bring, such as a failure to make reasonable adjustments if they are disabled.

There’s a lot to think about if you are considering dismissing an employee who is on long term sickness absence and it’s important to be aware that it can be costly to get it wrong.

This is particularly so in relation to discrimination as it is a claim that can be brought from day one of employment and there is no limit on the amount an employment tribunal can award a successful claimant.

Reach out for business-focused expert help before taking action.

9. Can I make an employee on long term sickness redundant?

Do you have a genuine redundancy situation? 

If you don’t have a genuine redundancy situation, for example, you are considering making an employee redundant because you think it might be quicker than managing the absence or kinder, this could land your business in hot water.

You could for example find that your employee complains that they have been unfairly dismissed as the redundancy is a ‘sham’ or that they have been discriminated against.

An employee being on long term sickness absence won’t usually prevent you from appropriately dealing with a redundancy situation if you have one.

It will however need careful handling if you wish to protect your business. Issues such as appropriate selection pools, scoring, and reasonable adjustments are likely to need to be considered.

When it comes to redundancies, the planning stage is vital, if you think you need to propose a redundancy in your business, read our redundancy management advice and follow it up with one of our experts. 

10. What are employee’s rights when on long term sickness absence?

When it comes to statutory rights these are generally the same as if the employee was at work.

For example, they will still have protection from being unfairly dismissed (subject to a two-year qualifying service requirement for ordinary unfair dismissal) and they have the right not to be discriminated against or harassed from day one of their employment.

Furthermore, if they are disabled there can be an obligation on your business to make reasonable adjustments in some situations.

Need some help managing an employee on long term sickness absence? Have a question about an area such as long term sickness absence and holiday? We’re here to help, let us know what’s on your mind.  

11. What common mistakes do businesses make when dealing with long term sickness absence?

It can be all too easy to make a misstep when managing long-term sickness absence. Whilst mistakes can take many forms, here are some common ones that are easily avoidable:

  • Forgetting about an employee who is on long term sickness absence, or putting off managing the situation. This can make the absence much harder to deal with – and in some cases can even result in you having an employee on your books for a very long time with no contact.

  • Not appropriately monitoring the absence and overlooking matters such as requiring an employee to provide medical certification to cover the ongoing absence

  • Not paying the employee correctly whilst they are absent or forgetting to inform the employee in good time when SSP / Company sick pay is coming to an end

  • Making procedural and substantive errors when managing the sickness absence process, such as not obtaining medical information where required or relying on out-of-date information to make decisions, failing to appropriately consider adjustments to support an employee to return to work and not generally following a fair process to manage the situation, such as consulting with the employee when needed.

There’s no substitute for effective fact-specific business advice when you manage sickness absence in the workplace.

Don’t let a lack of appropriate support hold your business back, get in touch for 15 minutes of free advice.

[1] Office for National Statistics (ONS), released 26 April 2023, ONS website, article, Sickness absence in the UK labour market: 2022

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