How to deal with sickness absence, as a small business owner

Humans can get sick 🤒

But, even if you have the greatest empathy in the world, it’s never convenient for business owners when it happens.

But, it’s a fact of life. Especially when you’re in the midst of a global pandemic. 

If you run a business, it’s your job to define and communicate how your company handles sickness absences, including what you expect from your employees in terms of communication. This is usually done through your HR policies. Of course, there are legal rules that you must stick to, too.

This blog is designed to help you to handle sickness absences. Starting with the legal position first 👇 After all, if you manage the situation the wrong way, you could end up in an employment tribunal. And NOOO business wants that!

HERE'S WHAT THE LAW SAYS

The law is pretty straightforward around sickness absences.

Your employees can take up to seven, consecutive days off when they’re poorly, WITHOUT proof of illness. But, if their sickness absence extends beyond that time period, they need to get a ‘Fit Note’ from their doctor (a note which says they are fit to work). 

If they’re self-isolating because of Covid-19, then the NHS can prescribe them an ‘Isolation Note’ via NHS 111 online.

When your employee is off sick for longer than around four to six weeks, in HR we call this 'long-term sickness absence'. And the patterns we say are generally, the longer an employee is off, the more likely it is that they won’t want to return to your workplace.

The law says your employees will be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) – (currently £96.35 per week in July 2021) – if they normally earn at least £120 per week. This must kick in from the fourth day they’re off sick and last no more than 28 weeks. So, the first 3 days of sick leave are unpaid. 

Employees who are already getting other statutory pay outs – like Statutory Maternity Pay – cannot claim SSP. The same goes if they’ve already received sick pay in the last eight weeks.

However, if you have your own HR policies around sick pay, you may choose to pay your employees more than what SSP offers.

With regards to holidays, your employee should still accrue their holiday leave entitlement while they’re off sick 🏖

STICK TO YOUR POLICIES 📑

Every small business – whether they have two or two hundred employees – should have a sickness absence policy and procedure in place.

A document like this, is designed to spell out what must happen when a member of staff is sick.

It covers things like:
⏰ How and when they should tell you they’re sick

🤔 What information you need to know

📲 How and when you’ll keep in touch with them while they’re off work

💷 The amount you’ll pay them and what happens with holidays

🏥 What you need from their doctor, if anything

📅 What will happen if they’re off for a long period of time

It’s SOOO important to have these types of HR policies in place. They help to eliminate misunderstandings and encourage you to treat every employee in the same way.

HR policies demonstrate you’re a responsible employer. They also provide protection – should the worst happen – and you’re taken to an employment tribunal 😱

Check out my SICKNESS ABSENCE TOOLKIT for all the paperwork you need to manage sickness absences. From HR policies to letter templates. It’s all here and done for you!

HELP YOUR EMPLOYEES TO RETURN TO WORK 🤗

Sometimes, after an employee has been off sick, especially for a long period of time, you may have to make changes to their job, working environment, or working patterns.

These are called reasonable adjustments. They help you to get your employee back into work, whilst supporting them to do so.

These adjustments might include:

✔ Allowing them to work fewer hours for the first few weeks

✔ Providing them with a different kind of chair so they’re better supported

MOST COMMON REASONS FOR SICKNESS ABSENCE 😷

According to the ONS, the UK sickness rate stands at 1.8%. And, the top three reasons for sickness absences are:

  1. Minor Illnesses – including coughs, colds and flu; sickness, nausea, and diarrhoea
  2. Musculoskeletal problems – including back pain, neck and upper limb problems and other musculoskeletal problems
  3. The Coronavirus – enough said 😷


Does this tally with what’s happening in your place of work? 🤔

KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR PATTERNS FORMING 📊

You may notice that your employee seems to be off sick quite regularly and sick absence patterns are forming. For example, they tend to ring in sick during the school holidays. Or, when they do call in sick, it’s always on a Monday.

If this happens, you should speak to your employee…

👉Have a fact-based conversation (pushing emotions aside) and show them how many times they’ve been off sick and how many days that amounts to

👉Ask after their welfare and give them an opportunity to open up to you. Are they okay? Is there anything they want to tell you?

👉Remind them that persistent sick absences can lead to disciplinary action

You simply input how much time your employee has had, and it gives them a score. You can then use this score to ascertain if action needs to be taken.

SOMETIMES THINGS CAN END UP IN A DISMISSAL 👋

On rare occasions, long-term or persistent sick absences can lead to a dismissal. For example, if a doctor says your employee is no longer fit enough to do the job you employed them to do.

If this is a route you think you want to explore, I’d recommend you do the following:

📑 Follow the correct procedures by making sure you stick to what’s in your HR policies and employment contracts

🗣 Keep your employee informed every step of the way

✏ Take a note of everything that’s been said and on what date

🏥 Collect all medical evidence including ‘Fit Notes’

👌 Get expert advice from a HR pro before doing anything rash


If you’re daunted by disciplinaries, download my DISCIPLINARY TOOLKIT, which will help you to stay on the right side of the law! 

REMEMBER TO STAY KIND

In most cases, sickness absences are genuine, unavoidable, and short-lived.

So, be kind. Whilst having your staff off sick is a MAHOOSIVE inconvenience, most employees aren’t trying to pull a fast one.

If you act like the responsible employer you are, it’ll pay dividends in the end, and your employee is likely to be more engaged and loyal to your business.

TO SUM THINGS UP THEN

🤕Sickness absence is something that all business owners have to deal with, despite the inconvenience it causes

⚖The law is pretty clear about how much time off your employees are entitled to and what they should be paid

🔐Having said that, HR policies are critical in protecting your business. They should spell out exactly what happens when your employee is sick. From how they should inform you, to what adjustments you might make upon their return

📉The sickness absence rate in the UK is 1.8% and employees tend to be off because of minor illnesses, musculoskeletal problems, or Covid-19

📊It’s prudent to look for any patterns of absence that might be forming

👋Sickness absences can sometimes result in a dismissal. If this is a route you’re going down, remember to be diligent with your paper trail, stick to your HR policies, and get a HR pro to help you

❤Above all, remember that most employees aren’t trying to pull a fast one when they’re off sick, so be kind!

Mandy Hamerla

Mandy Hamerla​


Virtual HR Director & Leadership Mentor. I create game-changing HR & Hiring Strategies for ambitious small businesses in the UK and support you to lead your team with confidence. Check out my shop to download HR Templates & Contracts designed to make life easier. 

​www.modernhr.co.uk