Managing Frequent Short-Term Sickness Absence

Understanding Possible Causes

It is important to understand there may be a variety of reasons for frequent short-term sickness absences, including:

  • An underlying medical condition;
  • An unusually high, but genuine, vulnerability to colds, flu, etc.;
  • Excessive tiredness e.g. the employee may have additional responsibilities outside work such as childcare or a second job;
  • Personal or family problems;
  • Specific problems in the workplace; and/or
  • Demotivation.

Discussions between the manager and employee can be important to help determine if there are any contributing factors and what, if any, support can be provided.

Possible Impact of Workplace Factors

It should also be acknowledged that frequent short-term sickness absences may be caused or exacerbated by factors in the workplace.  For example, in addition to genuine periods of sickness, frequent short-term absences may be linked to:

  • Stress due to the volume of work or pressure of work deadlines;
  • Difficult working relationships or conflict with colleagues;
  • Bullying or harassment;
  • Anxiety relating to organisational change; and/or
  • Other factors causing dissatisfaction e.g. ineffective procedures or equipment, or a lack of clear goals or targets.

Where such issues are identified appropriate support should be considered. This may include mediation, counselling, re-assessing workloads and training etc.  If a workplace issue is identified, the manager should take steps to remove or reduce the factors that appear to be contributing to the absences, if this is at all possible.

Discussing Short-Term Absences

Return to work discussions are an opportunity to investigate any underlying causes of short-term absences and are particularly important if an employee has a high rate of such absences.  
Further details on conducting return to work discussions can be found in the policy and in this guidance document.

Monitoring and Recording Short-Term Absences

It is important to monitor an employee’s short-term absences to enable issues to be identified, such as high levels or particular patterns.  An accurate record of sickness absence levels is essential to the management of sickness absence.  Please refer to the Recording Sickness Absence section of the policy for further details.

Self-certificates and medical certificates should be retained on the employee’s personnel file.  Such records should be held confidentially and in compliance with the laws on data protection.

Identifying and Discussing Patterns in Short-Term Absences

When reviewing an employee's sickness absence record any patterns which cause concern should be identified and discussed.  This could include repeated absences on a particular day of the week or that tend to occur at a particular time e.g. just before a monthly deadline or towards the end of a busy shift cycle.

Discussions about patterns in sickness absence should be carried out in a factual way, by stating the facts and asking open questions.  For example:

  • “I have noticed that six out of your 10 absences have been on Mondays.  Would you like to comment on that apparent pattern?”
  • “Is there any reason why nearly all your absences have been in the final week of the month?”
  • “The records show that you tend to be absent towards the end of your shift cycle.  Is there any problem we can help you with in relation to shift working?”