Tips on Creating an Absence Policy

by Alan Hickey, Peninsula Ireland

Absences are unavoidable, it is just a part of working life. Absence comes at a significant cost for businesses every year, so as a business owner, you will always look to minimise the impact this has on productivity and profitability.

While it is an aspect that costs businesses money, it is something that is often left unmonitored. This is where an absence policy can prove essential.

It can ensure no additional time is wasted. This makes it clear what is expected from both the employer and the employee when the former needs to take time off work.

Why absence from work matters

Missed days from work are costly, leading to a loss in productivity and profits. The average time lost to employee sickness last year was 3.7%, that’s about 8½ days per employee per annum, according to IBEC, costing Irish employers more than €215 million per year.

Not only does it come at a financial cost to the business but it also causes disruption in the workplace. This can be in the form of unfinished work or disgruntled colleagues who have to pick up the absent employee’s work.

Therefore, having an absence policy is important to minimise these effects.

What is an absence policy?

It is a framework put in place by a business in an effort to reduce employee absences. This is done through company-wide programmes and policies.

It needs to be communicated clearly to members of the company at all levels. Policy examples could be pieces of training from HR managers about staff absence policy. This ensures everyone knows what is expected of them when calling in sick etc.

Effective management involves a balance of supporting employees with health conditions return to work and taking action against employees who could try to take advantage of their organisation’s occupational sick pay scheme.

A focus on employee well-being and health promotion is good for absence management. It can help avoid non-genuine absence problems developing and support work-life balance.

What kinds of absence are there?

When looking at absences, you can categorise them into 3 distinct types. Depending on the category, you may or may not wish to follow up with the employee, whether that be to reprimand them or to try and support them getting back to work.

These categories are as follows:

  • Short- or long-term sickness.
  • Other authorised absences, including annual leave; maternity, paternity, adoption, or parental leave; time off for public or trade union duties, or to care for dependents; compassionate leave; educational leave.
  • Unauthorised absence or persistent lateness.

Causes for absence because of sickness

Sickness is one of the biggest causes of absence in the workplace. Here are the most common reasons for employees to be off sick.

  • Minor illness (includes colds/flu, stomach upsets, headaches and migraines).
  • Musculoskeletal injuries, including back pain.
  • Mental ill-health (for example, depression and anxiety).
  • Caring responsibilities for children.

As an employer, you can look to minimise some of these, if you find employees are frequently off for similar reasons. For example, you may wish to look at a wellness programme if employees are often off due to stress.

What does an absence policy include?

The best absence management policies are ones that are fair and developed to fit the needs of the organisation. They strike a careful balance between offering sufficient time off to account for sickness and being strict enough to discourage unnecessary absence and lost productivity.

An effective absence policy should include:

  • How to report absences, including who to contact and when.
  • When an employee is required to bring in a sick note.
  • When an employee needs to fill in a self-certification form.
  • If there is a return to work interview process, and what to expect.
  • Who will hold these talks and when, if they are held.
  • How often to keep in touch when you are off sick for more than one day and how to communicate.
  • How you will monitor the absence and if there are any ‘trigger’ points.
  • Whether you provide occupational health services or an EAP to help the employee return to work.
  • Explain that adjustments may be appropriate to assist the employee in returning to work as soon as is practicable.
  • How much the employee is paid when off sick and for how long they will receive pay.
  • Give guidance on absence during major or adverse events (for example, snow, pandemics or popular sporting events such as the Olympic Games or World Cup).

Managing short-term absence

This will be the more common type of absence that needs to be managed. It is also where it is more likely for an employee to be taking advantage of any sick pay policy that you have.

Having clear disciplinary procedures for any unacceptable absences will help deter employees from taking advantage of sick pay. Ensure this is followed and enforced for all employees, but take into account any employees underlying health issues.

Here are some effective ways you can manage short term absence:

  • Return to work interviews.
  • Allowing leave for family circumstances.
  • Disciplinary procedures for unacceptable absences/absence levels.
  • Providing flexible working opportunities.
  • Employee assistance programmes
  • Occupational health inspections

Managing long-term absence

We usually define this as an absence which is longer than four weeks. It’s challenging to manage someone off sick for this long and just as difficult to support them when coming back to work.

Therefore, you must keep in contact with the absent employee in a sensitive manner and have a formal return-to-work strategy for them. Being careful to avoid discrimination is crucial if it is leave due to this.

Here are some strategies to manage long term absence:

  • Return to work interviews which are supportive and discuss any adjustments needed.
  • Occupational health inspections to support the employee.
  • Risk assessments to ensure their health and safety at work.
  • Options for flexible working.