Case Study - Managing Absence

This case study looks at the impact of absence on the business and effective ways to manage this. 

Case Study

Sam started his role as Production Manager.  As part of his KPI's he was tasked to improve on the efficiency and effectiveness of production and work within the department budget as his predecessor had let things slip.   

Sam analysed some data and quickly identified that sickness absence was the main factor impacting production.  As a result of high absence levels, overtime was being paid at time and a half to cover absence.  In addition, deadlines were often at risk or missed due to the high level of frequent short-term absences.  This in turn was affecting staff morale as they were constantly under pressure to meet deadlines.  

Sam's investigation of looking at absence for the past year, highlighted the following three situations. 

Example 1 – Absence Monitoring 

Sam realised that there was no clear absence monitoring system in place. Having review all the records, Sam calculated that the average level of absence across the production team was running at about 10 days per annum.  He could further see some patterns where absence was connected to shift patterns and weekends. 

Sam decided to implement a new absence management policy and procedure. This included reviewing the absence reporting procedure and requiring anyone who was not able to attend work to contact Sam personally within specified times.

Sam also introduced return to work interviews where every employee completed a company self-certification form on their return and Sam held a meeting with everyone to discuss their reasons for absence. 

If Sam felt that there were any underlying medical conditions, or the employee needed further support he would ask for their consent for them to attend an Occupational Health Assessment. 

Within the first 6 months, the overall absence fell from an average of 10 days per annum to 5 days per annum. Sam is confident that absence will continue to reduce over time. 

Example 2  - (frequent short-term absence, with patterns)

Paul's absence record was particularly high showed he had been off sick 7 times totalling 20 days.  When Sam looked at the reasons for absence all absences appeared to be for common ailments including headache, sore throat, cold, tummy upset.  Paul noticed that out of the 7 absences 5 of them were linked to either weekends, bank holidays or tagged on to booked annual leave, he had returned to work today after being sick on Friday. 

Sam met with Paul (informally) and said that he had noticed that his sickness level was excessive and asked Paul to explain.  Sam went through the reasons for Paul’s absence to confirm these were what had been reported and Paul agreed that they were all associated with common but unrelated ailments. When asked to explain his high level of absence, Paul said that he could not help being ill, and he would not be dragging himself in to work when he was sick.  

Sam asked Paul if he could explain why most of the absences were linked to weekends, bank holidays or booked annual leave.  Paul answered that he had no idea why and asked what Sam was suggesting.  Sam said that Paul's job was meaningful, and he was needed at work, when he was off the Company needed to cover his absence usually with overtime which put additional pressure on the budget and his fellow workers on having to do unplanned overtime.  Sam added that there was even a risk that deadlines could be missed which could result in loss of business or damage to the Company's reputation.  Paul repeated 'I can't help being ill'.  

Sam asked if Paul was aware of any medical condition that may be affecting his ability to attend work. Paul answered 'no, it's just bugs and things, everyone gets them'. Sam asked Paul to think about his lifestyle and social life and whether there was anything he could do to make sure that he is well enough to come to work.  Paul said what he did in his own time was nothing to do with the Company.  Sam said that Paul's reliability had everything to do with the Company for reasons he had explained.

Sam said that he would continue to monitor Paul's' sickness along with the whole department's sickness. Sam explained that he hoped that this informal discussion would give Paul an insight on the impact his sickness has on the business and his fellow workers, and the importance of being reliable. Sam said that in the event of Paul failing to improve, he would consider taking formal disciplinary or capability action. After the informal meeting, Sam documented the main points of the discussion and issued Paul with an improvement notice.  

Two weeks after the informal discussion, Paul was off Wednesday and Thursday and Friday. Sam conducted a return-to-work interview when Paul claimed to have hurt his knee playing football on Tuesday evening.  Sam asked Paul what he recalled of the informal conversation regarding the need to improve his absence.   Paul said that he shouldn't go sick at the weekends and needed to improve, but this happened on a Tuesday not the weekend, and he wasn't sick, he hurt his knee. Sam reiterated that either way, Paul was not fit to attend work.  He then read referred to the improvement notice detailing the improvement required. Sam informed Paul that he would be addressing this through the disciplinary process.  

After following the full disciplinary procedure, this resulted in Paul receiving a written warning clearly stating the reason for the warning, the need to improve and consequences of failing to do so.  

The following month, Paul took a week off, reporting to have flu.  Sam conducted the return-to-work interview and asked again if there was any underlying cause that Paul had which would impact his attendance.  Paul said he must have a low immune system. Paul attended a further disciplinary meeting.  During the meeting Paul was asked for consent to contact his GP for a medical report to establish if there was any medical reason for his high level of sickness absence.  Paul refused saying his health and private life was his business and would not let the Company pry.  Paul was asked to reconsider his decisions and was advised that by refusing consent, the Company would make decisions based on information available. Paul was issued with a final written warning stating the reason for the warning and that if he failed to improve, his employment may be terminated. 

6 weeks later Paul went sick for 10 days with 'food poisoning' his absence was verified by a fit note.  At the return-to-work interview Sam reminded Paul he was facing further disciplinary action which could result in the termination of his employment. Sam asked again for his consent for the company to write to his GP or for his consent to attend an Occupational Health assessment. Paul again refused to give his consent saying that it was none of Sam’s or the Company’s business. 

At the disciplinary meeting Paul mitigated that this time he was genuinely sick and had been to his GP and there was proof because he had a fit note.  Sam explained that all absences were considered to be genuine sickness as reported by employees at the time.  Paul was reminded that he had refused consent to write to his GP or to attend an Occupational Health assessment and was asked a further time to give his consent. Paul's response was again that it was none of Sam's business what was wrong with him, all he needed to know was that he was ill, and his GP had given him a fit note as proof.  

After adjourning and considering all the facts, Sam decided to terminate Paul’s employment as he had received warnings and had failed to improve. Sam took into consideration that he could not verify any medical information as Paul had continually withheld his consent. He also considered Paul's comments that this time his sickness was genuine which implied that other periods of absence were not genuine.

Sam confirmed the decision in writing and advised Paul of his right of appeal. As the matter was not gross misconduct, but dismissal following a series of warnings, Paul was paid notice. 

Example 3 (Redeployment)

Kirsty had also had frequent short-term absences of 15 spells totalling 20 days.  Out of the 15 spells 14 of them were due to epileptic seizures.  The other spell was 1 day with a sore throat.  Sam was very concerned as Kirsty was the only person trained to operate one of the machines, without her at work production stopped.  Sam met informally with Kirsty to discuss her absences. 

During the informal meeting, Kirsty said she had had epilepsy for a number of years without a seizure, but in the last 6 months she had 14.  Kirsty explained that she was seeing a consultant, and they were trying different medication.  She found it all very limiting as she had been told not to drive, climb heights or operate machinery.  Sam immediately realised that Kirsty was at risk, and he had a duty of care.  He asked her to go to her GP immediately for a fit note stating her medical restrictions and also asked for her consent to contact her GP for a medical report.  Kirsty gave her consent and got a fit note verifying her restrictions.  Sam did not have any alternative work to accommodate her medical restrictions, so Kirsty had to go on sick leave.  Sam managed to cover Kirsty's role by asking her predecessor Jim who retired if he would be able to return for a short while.  

As it was unclear how Kirsty's medical situation would affect her capability of carrying out her role in the long term, the formal capability process was started.  At the first meeting Kirsty confirmed that she was unable to do any of her role as she was not able to operate machinery and apologised that she had not advised the Company as she knew that production would stop if she told them, and she felt responsible.  Sam explained that Kirsty's health and safety was the most important thing.  The medical report confirmed that Kirsty's medical condition was under investigation and would not be determined until tests had been carried out, they anticipated being able to give a prognosis within 1 month.  The process was adjourned pending further information.  

In the meantime, the receptionist who was on maternity leave resigned.  Her position was currently covered by a fixed term contract who had 2 months left. 

Sam reconvened the process on receipt of the medical report, which confirmed that Kirsty would not be permitted to drive or operate machinery for at least 1 year. Kirsty confirmed the report was accurate. They agreed that Kirsty was medically incapable of doing her job and would not be able to do so for at least 1 year. Sam reminded Kirsty that she had been told that her job  could not be kept open indefinitely.  Sam asked Kirsty to consider the receptionist role, although the salary was lower.  Kirsty said that she was a 'bit rusty' with her computer skills, but a course should brush her skills up, and she would be happy to undertake the role.  Sam suggested she returned to work to shadow the 'temporary' receptionist and if towards the end of the 2 months Kirsty felt she would need training the Company would provide it.  Kirsty asked if she would get her job back when she was able to drive.  Sam said the transfer to an alternative position was permanent, but she was welcome to apply for any vacant roles as and when they became available.  
A letter was sent to Kirsty confirming the agreed changes and asked for her signature of acceptance of the terms and conditions of the Receptionist role. 

Following the outcome of the process, Sam arranged for Jim to train another member of staff and Kirsty agreed to be a mentor.  

Conclusion 

Within a period of 6 months, Sam had significantly reduced absence. There provided a considerable cost saving on overtime and the production team were no longer under pressure and were able to consistently meet production requirements. 

Sam had redeployed a valuable member of staff and retained their services (as an alternative to dismissal) and had removed an employee whose absence was unacceptable and whose attitude was less than helpful. Sam also found that Paul’s bad attitude had been affecting others and that after his departure morale had lifted.