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Excessive absenteeism | When can employers take action?

Written by Alexandra Farmer on 4 August 2021

Repeat absences can be a serious drain on the resources of any businesses. While the occasional sick day is to be expected, there may be times when an employee’s attendance record becomes a real cause for concern. So where do organisations draw the line?

What is considered excessive absenteeism?

Every HR person and manager understands that managing absence is a fact of life in the modern workplace. In fact, accommodating an employee’s need for time away from the office is widely accepted as good business practice, as this can support wellbeing, prevent presenteeism and serve as an effective retention tool.

However, you may have an employee whose tendency to take time off goes beyond the boundaries of what you would consider to be reasonable. This can damage your productivity, profitability and morale.

But what exactly qualifies as ‘excessive absenteeism’? Well, this isn’t defined in law, and will therefore largely depend on the parameters set in your company’s absence policy.

As the needs of every business and industry will differ, your policy on excessive absenteeism will differ too. Within your absence policy, you should clearly spell out your specific expectations in regard to attendance – one widely-used method is to establish a trigger point, based on number of days’ absence.

A common value is more than three occasions and/or 10 working days in any rolling six-month period, but employers can use their discretion to set the levels or patterns of sickness absence that will prompt action under the organisation’s absence management procedure.

Another common way to measure absence of all types, and determine when absence becomes excessive, is known as the Bradford Factor. This is based on the theory that short, frequent, unplanned absences are more disruptive to organisations than longer absences and so they attract a higher score. Bradford Factor scores are based on the frequency and length of an employee’s absence during a defined period, usually 52 weeks. The score is usually arrived at by squaring the number of instances of absence and then multiplying that by the days of absence. That weighting means someone who has three periods of absence of two days each will score higher than someone who has one period of six days off.

Setting triggers will help you to treat employees consistently. Make sure the trigger is clearly communicated within your absence policy so that employees understand what the organisation defines as excessive absenteeism.

Keep in mind that you may need to adapt these sickness absence trigger points for disabled employees as part of your duty to make reasonable adjustments.

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Can I terminate an employee for excessive absenteeism?

Yes – but not straight away.

Once an employee’s absence reaches your pre-defined trigger point, action may commence under your absence management procedure.

The first step will normally be to hold an investigation into the employee’s excessive absenteeism. Employees don’t have a statutory right to be accompanied at an investigation meeting, but you should check whether your policy contains such a provision.

As well as discussing your concerns, the meeting is an opportunity to:

  • Go through the employee’s attendance record to ascertain the reasons for their excessive absences.
  • Ask if there is an underlying reason or condition impacting the employee’s attendance at work.
  • If appropriate, discuss what support is needed and can be offered.

If this is the first time you have had to speak to the employee about their attendance, you could consider proceeding with only informal action. These are normally recorded within an informal excessive absenteeism warning letter, which should explain what improvements you need to see and include a suitable trigger point for example, no more than two further absences in a six-month period. Additionally, be clear that any failure to improve attendance levels will result in formal action.

If this is a recurring issue, then you may wish to proceed to a formal meeting that could result in a formal outcome. Because this is a formal meeting, the employee will have a statutory right to be accompanied – you should invite them in writing and explain this within the invite.

Following the meeting, any outcome should be confirmed in writing.

Note that if they have over two years’ service, it will never be fair to terminate the employee for excessive absenteeism without going through the full range of warnings first. Employers must ensure that any warning issued for excessive absenteeism is accompanied by a timescale and suggestions for improvement, together with details of the action the employer will take if there is no improvement within the specified timescale.

All formal warnings come with a right to appeal.

What kinds of absence shouldn't be counted?

If you have a policy of trigger points for excessive absenteeism and a procedure that may lead to dismissal once an employee reaches a certain level of sickness absence, keep in mind that you cannot take into account any pregnancy-related illness. Pregnant employees have a “protected period” lasting from conception until the end of the statutory maternity leave. Dismissing an employee or subjecting her to any detriment as a result of a pregnancy or maternity-related illness occurring during this protected period is unlawful.

Other sensitive issues include time off for elective or cosmetic surgery, and employees with numerous absences due to stress or another mental health condition such as anxiety or depression. Given the potential for discrimination claims arising from a possible disability, it’s safest to seek specialist advice in these scenarios.

How can I combat excessive absenteeism?

Like most employee issues, prevention is better than cure.

Your first and most effective strategy in managing absenteeism is to develop a clearly defined attendance and absence policy and communicate that policy to new and existing employees via your employee handbook.

A step that is often overlooked is the return to work interview. Where an employee is regularly taking periods of short-term absence, interviews can be an opportunity for you to raise any concerns with them and explore whether there are any underlying reasons for their absence, perhaps related to their health or skill set. Of course, return to work interviews can also be an effective deterrent against bogus or excessive absences, as they signal to employees that their absences are being closely monitored.

Other ways to combat excessive absenteeism include considering more flexible working arrangements (numerous studies have linked remote work to lower absenteeism), introducing wellbeing initiatives, ensuring workloads are manageable to prevent burnout, and tackling workplace conflict early.

Get support now

Bogged down in excessive low-level absence or facing a particularly tricky situation? Our experts can help you to deal with bogus absences, repeat offenders, long-standing conditions that may be disability-related, and everything in between.

If you need help with absenteeism, call us now on 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.

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