What's the best way to manage staff absence in schools and colleges?

Decide what 'type' of absence you are dealing with 

It's reasonable for you to expect staff to achieve and maintain an adequate level of attendance.  

If the employee has a lot of short term absences (colds, coughs, stomach upsets, headaches etc) your policy should include a series of staged warnings to notify the employee that their absence levels must improve. If they don't you may be able to fairly dismiss them, provided you follow a fair procedure and give appropriate notice. 

For long-term absence (usually categorised as four weeks or more, or intermittent periods of absence for an underlying, recurrent reason) you need to find out if the employee has a disability. If they do, you'll need to support the employee to return to work. Medical guidance will be needed and can be crucial to progressing matters.

Are there any patterns to the absence? 

Sometimes, when looking at short-term absence, patterns can emerge which suggest the employee is malingering (feigning illness to avoid attendance at work). This is a misconduct matter which should be managed under your disciplinary policy and could amount to gross misconduct in some circumstances, as it is a form of dishonesty. We've written a longer article to help you to determine if your employee is sick or skiving.

Is the employee disabled? 

An individual may be a disabled if they suffer from a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.  

Certain conditions such as multiple sclerosis, cancer, blindness and severe disfigurements are automatically included. For others, it depends on the extent and impact of the impairment without the benefit of any medication that they may be taking for it.

Deciding if someone is disabled is, ultimately, something an Employment Tribunal has to determine if a claim is issued. It can be difficult for an employer to decide whether to treat someone as being disabled - particularly if they are suffering from stress and other mental health problems. Occupational health can help to give a view but this is not determinative. Legal advice can also assist.

This matters because, if an employee has a disability, additional obligations under the Equality Act 2010 may arise including positive duties to put in place reasonable adjustments to help the disabled person overcome workplace disadvantages that may affect their ability to work. Also, any treatment of them which is related to their disability (including warnings for disability related absence) will be a form of discrimination unless they can be justified (which isn't easy).

Keep in touch with the employee 

You should maintain a reasonable level of regular contact with the employee (such as carrying out home visits or telephoning) to keep them up to date with what is going on at work, find out how they are feeling and when they expect to be able to return to work. 

These conversations are all about balance – contact should be regular and supportive but not intrusive, especially where the employee is suffering from stress. In cases of long-term absence there will also be a need for regular medical assessments so that their absence and/or any related work issues can be addressed appropriately.

Use occupational health advisors 

Occupational health advisors can be extremely useful for this purpose if instructed properly. They can impartially advise on the employee’s specific medical condition and their ability to return to work. The focus should be about working towards a return to work and putting in place support to facilitate this as quickly as possible. However, if a return is not possible, the focus needs to be understanding why the employee can't return and when, or if, the situation may change.  

If there is no reasonable prospect of a return in the foreseeable future (with support) it may be fair and appropriate to terminate the employment on grounds of ill-health capability.  

You must obtain the employee’s consent before referring them to an OH advisor.

Make reasonable adjustments  

If the employee has a disability, there is a positive duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments to help them to overcome any particular disadvantage that they suffer in the workplace, such as a phased return to work or temporarily adjusting their duties. 

Even if the employee does not have a disability, it is often worth considering whether adjustments can be taken to assist an earlier return to work. 

If the employee is disabled, you will be expected to make any adjustments that are reasonable. Whilst it's sensible to involve the employee in discussions, the onus is on you to decide what changes to make. So, even if the employee can't think of anything that you can do to make it easier for them to return to work, you still have to consider what steps you could make - preferably with help from an occupational health professional.

Address absence during disciplinary or capability process 

A common problem! In response to being managed for poor performance or being subject to disciplinary proceedings, an employee may phone in sick with a stress-related illness. This can, unless managed proactively, lead to significant delays in managing the underlying cause of stress and resolve the issue.

You don't always have to wait for the employee to return to work before proceeding with internal processes. Being unfit for work doesn't mean that the employee is necessarily unfit to attend a meeting.  The meeting could take place at the employee’s home or at a neutral venue. You should encourage the employee to participate as the process should resolve the issue that is causing their stress.  

If the employee will not cooperate with a request for a meeting (or their union representative resists) you may be able to proceed with the hearing in their absence. However, before making a decision about this you need to carefully consider whether the individual is well enough to understand what is being alleged and, if they are capable of responding to the issues - perhaps in writing as an alternative to meeting face to face.  

It is helpful to obtain a medical assessment to confirm that the employee is fit to attend and legal advice should always be sought before proceeding with a meeting in someones absence.  

In our experience, employers that adopt a fair but assertive approach get better results than those who allow processes to drag on - often in the mistaken belief that they need to wait until the employee's stress/anxiety has abated. 

Need more information?

Partner Jenny Arrowsmith (schools) and senior associate Helen Dyke (colleges) can help you reduce your sick pay costs and the amount of time you spend managing absence. Please contact them for no obligation advice about how we can help you.