Guide to absence management

A small board on a deserted desk that reads 'I'm on sick leave'.

When your staff call in sick, it can cause a real headache – for colleagues, teams, the business and even clients and service users and I’m sure we can all agree, over the last few years COVID hasn’t made this any easier.

In fact, a recent report has shown that requests for sick notes from doctors are up 78% and although covid absences have been high 52% of absence recorded has been related to stress, anxiety and depression. 

When you know someone is going to be off – either pre-planned holiday, long term sick or family friendly leave, you can plan for it in an efficient way, however, all unplanned absence is costing small and medium-sized UK businesses in excess of £900 million, annually.

With that in mind, we thought it might be useful to provide an overview of absence management in the workplace.

What is absence management?

Absence (or if we look at this in a more positive way – attendance) management encourages you to look at the ways you can decrease the amount of unplanned absence that occurs in your business.

 The effect of unplanned absence

As mentioned above, not only is there a financial cost to unplanned absence (think sick pay, loss of productivity, and disruption), but it can also have a huge impact on the rest of your team, too as well as potentially your reputation – if you keep failing to deliver on time.

When a member of your team is regularly off sick, it can cause the rest of the team to feel resentment towards that person. There will be feelings of dissatisfaction, increased stress (because, remember, it’s these people that will be picking up the slack), and frustration.

But high levels of unplanned absence can be a sign of more going on within your business than appears on the surface. Are people off sick because they’re genuinely ill, or is it because they don’t feel competent at their job? Or maybe they are being bullied by a colleague? Perhaps your working environment is just too stressful or even toxic? Are they simply the wrong hire?

There’s a whole host of reasons that someone might be off work aside from being unwell. It’s your job to spot patterns or problems. Tracking sickness will help you to do that easily.

Take a look at your policy

When did you last review your sickness policy? Although the details may not have changed, you may have introduced new schemes that should be a part of it. It’s also important that you have things worded correctly so that, while employees know they’re entitled to time off when they’re unwell, they’re aware that the policy shouldn’t be abused. It can be a fine line to tread, which is why it pays to work with an expert HR consultant to do this for you. 

Remember the Statutory Sickness Payment rates went up recently too so make sure you’re quoting and more importantly paying the correct amounts.

Extreme close up of checkboxes on a company sickness form with a red cross in the box next to the words 'Sleep Apnea'.

Recording unplanned absence

It’s a really good idea that you record any instances of unplanned absence in your business. By doing this, it means you’ll be able to spot any patterns in absence, and therefore highlight any problems long before you might do otherwise.

For example, perhaps someone takes every third Friday off sick, or maybe one of your teams has a much higher rate of absence than the others. When you record this data, it will become really easy to identify areas of concern, and give you a better opportunity to tackle and resolve potential problems.

The cause of absence

While there will certainly be a genuine reason behind most sick days taken, it’s important that you look at the cause behind each absence in your business. Failing to do so could lead to bigger issues within the company that are more difficult to fix.

Is absence due to illness or injury? Is it likely to be long or short term? Perhaps someone is taking time off to care for sick children, or parents, or a partner? Maybe someone is being bullied by a colleague? Find out whether your employees need additional support from the business and your managers.

You should also be mindful of the ‘isms’.

You probably already know about absenteeism. That’s when someone habitually takes sick leave.

Then there’s leavism, which is the opposite. It’s where people refuse to take their annual leave, or work instead of resting when they do. A massive three quarters of people have seen leavism taking place in their workplace, and it’s usually most noticeable when people continue to check and reply to emails, check-in on projects, or take work-related calls while off.

Finally, there’s presenteeism, which is where an employee continues to present at work, even if they are genuinely ill. Not only is this bad for their health and wellbeing, but it also puts others at risk of illness, which could cause more problems for your business.

It’s really important that you and your managers spot any of the ‘isms’ and delicately broach the subject with employees where necessary.

Ill health dismissal

On occasion, it may be your last resort to dismiss an employee on the grounds of ill health. However, it’s vital that this is a last resort measure only, and you take reasonable steps to help get your employee back to work first.

These steps may include you approaching their GP for a report on their health (with your employee’s permission), arranging an occupational health assessment, or making reasonable adjustments to enable them to do their job.

In some case, this may not work, and it may be your only option to dismiss your employee. In these cases, it’s important to act with sensitivity and fairness. I would strongly recommend taking expert advice and following ACAS rules on this one.

The Equality Act 2010 states that a person must not be discriminated against because they have a disability, or someone thinks that they do, or because they are connected to someone with a disability. It can be costly if you get this wrong so tread carefully.


We hope this guide has increased your understanding and given you some things to think about when managing absence in your business. If you’d like some other more practical tips see our article 5 Practical Steps to help you reduce absence or if it is time that you took a serious look at the ways you can reduce absence in your business and you’d like some help give us a call.