How to create an effective sickness absence policy

It’s really important for businesses to have a robust sickness absence policy - even the smaller ones. It can be tempting to do it off-the-books if you’re a small startup, or verbally agree the rules with new hires, but that’s a dangerous route to go down, especially if problems come up in future.

Sickness absence is a cost to businesses, and even if your company doesn’t pay sick pay (why not?!) there’s loss of productivity and headaches when projects need to be rescheduled. Clarity and simple documentation are the key to getting everyone on the same page.

If you’re overdue on making a policy for illness absence, read on to find out what to include.

What to include in a sickness absence policy

The most important thing is that it’s written down, communicated well, and accessible for everyone. Here are some of the most important things to include in your policy document:

  • How and when the company is to be notified of absence
  • What the options are for seeing a doctor or occupational health advisor
  • Rules around return-to-work interviews (when they’re arranged, what their intention is, etc)
  • How attendance records are kept (systems and who’s responsible for them)
  • Policies on other absences, caused by things like alcohol / drug misuse, grievances, disciplinaries, jury duty, family emergencies - basically all the other types of absence and how they differ from sickness
  • Disciplinary procedures related to absence; consequences of not adhering to the policy or being absent for too long
  • Exemptions and accommodations for pregnancy-related illness, disabilities and terminal illness

Cover the short-term and long-term in your absence policy

Both timescales need to be covered. It’s important to first define the difference, and what kinds of absence are covered in each type. Usually, long-term absence is defined as more than a month, but there's no official standard for this.

Long-term things to include would be:

  • Requirements for medical evidence of illness (sick note) and suitability to come back (fit note)
  • Guidance for regular contact / check-ins between manager and employee
  • Sick pay entitlements (what statutory sick pay is, and what the company will pay contractually and for how long)
  • Phased returns and how they should work (ie. a gradual increase in hours worked, or temporary assignments to easier tasks)

Short-term things to include are:

  • Rules for taking time off for medical appointments (and antenatal appointments - there are certain legalities around these)
  • Notes on coming into work while sick - encourage employees to stay home so they don't spread anything round the office!

Make sure everybody understands it

Jargon doesn’t help anyone, so make it as clear as you can.

People need to immediately understand what you’re trying to say, especially in a document that’ll be referred to frequently. That means no complicated words, overlong sentences, or abstract metaphors. Get straight to the point, and lay it out in readable paragraphs with bullet points.

And terms need to be clarified - not everyone knows what statutory or liability means, and even if they do, they might be confusing in this context. A simple pair of brackets (like this) to clarify terms could save a lot of confusion down the line.

It’s worth going through this how to write in plain English guide from the Plain English Campaign, or this excellent style guide from writing agency The Writer (good for general business communication, as well as policy-setting).

Finally, make sure everyone in the business reads it - firstly to get feedback, and also to stay informed.

Your policy should support absence management

Every business - small, medium and large - is going to have absent staff at some point. So they need to figure out early on how they’re going to deal with it, and communicate this to everyone, or else the problem can spiral out of control. There can’t be room for misunderstandings, or lax employees taking the mick.

Staff need to know where they stand, so that when the day comes that they’re feeling unwell, they can take time to recover knowing they'll be supported. In the case of serious illness (or mental health conditions like anxiety), it won’t help anyone to be stuck unsure of what happens next if they need to be away from work.

Managers need to be proactive in managing employee absence - that’s why we’ve written guides on absence management alternatives to the Bradford Factor and employees taking sick days as holidays (and, of course, we built an absence management tool).

What's the best method for absence management? Sally Jacobson, HR director, quoted in Personnel Today, sums it up nicely:

"The greatest thing in reducing sickness absence is a positive working culture where staff really enjoy their jobs. They are then less likely to take casual sick leave."

Photo by Kyla Flanagan on Unsplash