ACAS releases new guidance on managing sickness absence – is your approach up to date?

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Home > Knowledge Hub > ACAS releases new guidance on managing sickness absence – is your approach up to date?

Earlier this month, ACAS issued new guidance on managing sickness absence in the workplace.

The new guidance includes a business essentials toolkit, aimed at assisting small businesses with how to approach sickness absence. The toolkit includes shareable resources which can be used by managers including the “6 steps” to be taken when an employee is absent due to sickness and 5 top tips for managing sickness absence.

The toolkit can be viewed here.

More detailed guidance notes on sickness absence and other types of absence have also been published and can be viewed here.

Sickness absence is an issue that all businesses face, regardless of size. The new advice issued by ACAS is useful in helping businesses to take an appropriate approach to this matter, hopefully reducing the risk of a successful employment tribunal claim. An important theme of the guidance is that employers should behave fairly, maintaining reasonable communication on issues facing their employees.

Important points to note in the new guidance include:

  • The guidance states that employers should make it clear what’s expected of their staff if they need time off work and suggests that employers should have policies on how the business approaches sickness absence as well as policies on holiday; maternity, paternity, adoption and parental leave; time off for medical or hospital appointments; time off for dependants; time off for bereavement and what to do when there is extreme weather or travel disruption. Employers who do not have policies on these matters, should consider putting them in place.
  • Whether or not an employer should obtain a medical report is a common area of confusion. ACAS provides helpful clarification on when an employer should seek a medical report relating to an employee.  The guidance suggests how an employer can approach a request for a medical report and what information should be provided to the employee about the request.  ACAS also suggests that an employer should consider obtaining a report in the following scenarios:
    • assess whether the employee is fit to carry out their work;
    • prevent health and safety risks;
    • explore changes that might help reduce an employee’s absence;
    • managing long-term or repeated short-term absences (for example, to establish why an employee is absent);
    • managing capability issues, particularly if the employer is considering dismissal;
    • decide if an employee is entitled to company sick pay;
    • check if an employee is eligible for a permanent health insurance or ill-health early retirement scheme; and
    • assess whether a disabled employee needs reasonable adjustments.
  • The guidance has a specific section of addressing long-covid, which is an ongoing issue for many employers.
  • ACAS recommends holding a return to work meeting in all cases where an employee has had a period of absence. ACAS notes that this may just be an informal chat between the employee and their manager but that this is important to ensure that any issue which need to be discussed have been addressed. In particular, ACAS suggests that employers should be looking out for any underlying causes for absence such as work related stress or a disability. The guidance sets out helpful comments on what matters should be discussed at a return to work meeting and how managers can prepare for return to work meetings. ACAS encourages managers to think about what support could be offered to the employee and how to answer queries about provision of support.
  • Many employers struggle to understand how best to keep in touch with employees during a period of absence. Too much or too little contact is often a source of complaints from employees. ACAS suggests that employers should agree with an employee on an appropriate level of contact. In cases where an employee is absent due to mental health, ACAS notes that whilst it is important for contact to be regular for welfare reasons, this should not be so regular that it is overwhelming for the employee.
  • ACAS notes the importance of keeping all absent employees up date with developments in the workplace, including matters such as opportunities for promotion. It is noted in the guidance that failing to notify absent employees of opportunities to progress within the organisation could lead to claims for discrimination.
  • Guidance is provided on how sickness absence should be recorded to avoid discriminatory practices and in a way which meets the requirements of data protection laws. ACAS suggests that recording absence appropriately can assist employers with identification of absence patterns and potential underlying causes of absence.
  • Some organisations have absence policies that set automatic triggers to review absence after an employee has had a certain level of absence. They are sometimes called ‘trigger points’ and the use of “trigger points” in absence management can be controversial, especially where they are linked to commencement of a capability or disciplinary process. Whilst ACAS acknowledges that trigger points for an absence review can be an effective way to help manage absence in an organisation, employers are advised that they should be flexible and sensitive to individual circumstances. The guidance provides useful guidance on the types of issues that should be discussed with employees when they reach a “trigger point, including appropriate support and adjustments. Employers need to mindful that adjusting trigger points for a disabled employee may be a reasonable adjustment required by the Equality Act 2010.

Employers of all sizes should take the time to review the new ACAS guidance to ensure that their approach to absence management is up to date and that they have the relevant policies and procedures on absence in place.

Having a fair and consistent approach to sickness absence and management is beneficial in all workplaces to reduce absence and complaints arising about the management of absences.  Taylor Walton’s employment law team is able to assist employers with developing and implementing effective absence policies.  We can also assist employers in deciding how to address individual cases of absence.  Taylor Walton’s employment team can be contacted here.

Disclaimer: General Information Provided Only
Please note that the contents of this article are intended solely for general information purposes and should not be considered as legal advice. We cannot be held responsible for any loss resulting from actions or inactions taken based on this article.


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