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What are the main reasons for employee absenteeism?

There are a wide variety of reasons why employees may decide to take unplanned leave, including:

  • physical sickness

  • mental illness

  • parenting or other caring responsibilities

  • compassionate leave and bereavement

  • public duties (eg jury duty)

  • travel and weather disruption

There is also the case of employees being absent for no given reason, or more commonly where they claim a reason (normally sickness) but this is not always true.

What are the rules surrounding sickness absence?

If an employee is sick for a maximum of 7 days in a row (including weekends and bank holidays) they do not need a note from the doctor. However, their employer can ask them to fill out a form to confirm that they were sick. This is known as self-certification and a Self-certification form can be used. Employees who are sick for more than 7 days consecutively can be asked to provide a 'fit note' from a healthcare professional.

It should be noted that mental illness and even stress at work (eg caused by bullying, harassment or excessive workload) can lead to sickness absence, and employers should not treat mental illness any less seriously than physical forms of sickness.

For more information, read Managing sickness absence and create your Sickness policy.

What are the rules surrounding time off for children and dependants?

For rules and policies surrounding planned leave read:

In situations where absence is not planned, employees are entitled to reasonable time off to deal with emergencies involving dependants (eg child, grandchild, parent, partner or spouse etc). Emergencies include:

  • illness, injury or assault (eg dependant is involved in an accident)

  • having a baby (eg a dependant unexpectedly goes into labour)

  • disruption of care arrangements (eg childminder is off sick)

  • a child being involved in an incident at school (eg suspended due to fighting)

Employers are not obliged to pay employees in respect of emergency time off, subject to the employment contract or policies on compassionate leave. It is a good time to make a Time off for dependants policy to cover emergency situations.

Employees are also entitled to time off for bereavement (eg to attend a funeral). Employers should have a Bereavement leave policy in place to cover these circumstances.

In some circumstances, such bereavement leave may need to be paid. Parents are entitled to take up to 2 weeks off where they have lost a child under 18 (or where a child was stillborn after 24 weeks’ pregnancy), on or after 6 April 2020, to allow them time to grieve. Parental bereavement leave can be paid or unpaid. Unpaid bereavement leave applies to parents from the first day they work for their employer. Paid parental bereavement becomes available to qualifying parents after 26 weeks of continuous employment. For more information, read Parental bereavement leave.

How can employers deal with long-term absences or persistent absences?

Long-term absence will normally fall into the context of long-term illness. A return to work plan can be agreed upon between long-term sick employees and their employer which avoids the need to keep obtaining fit notes.

Persistent or intermittent absence (ie where an employee keeps taking short amounts of time off for sickness or another reason) should be monitored and assessed over time.

Employers should consider if long-term sickness or persistent short-term sickness constitutes a disability. If so, they may be required to make reasonable adjustments.

Ultimately, employers can dismiss a long-term sick employee. However, they must first consider if the employee is able to return to work (eg in a more flexible capacity) and they should also consult with the employee regarding the outlook of their condition and their prospect of returning to work. For employees who are persistently absent (due to illness or for other reasons), care should be taken when considering dismissal and the relevant internal policies should be followed.

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