How to deal with absence in the workplace

The average worker in the UK is absent from work for 8.4 days a year which costs UK businesses £12 billion a year – that’s an average of over £600 per employee per year.

Plus, absence of your workers also has an impact on productivity, so it’s important to take early action to deal with it.

Identifying the problem

You’ll first want to find out if there really is a problem in your workplace. If so, how many workers are involved, what type of absence is it, which sections or shifts are affected and does the problem extend throughout the business?

Once you’ve got a clear idea of the problem (if there is one) you can move on to dealing with it.

Tackling absence

It is essential that you have an overall approach to deal with absence so you can monitor and control it. You will need to have clear, transparent policies and procedures which are consistent and fair in the way they are applied.

Your approach should demonstrate your commitment to your employees and your interest in their welfare. In developing your approach you will need to recognise that individuals sometimes have genuine and reasonable reasons for being absent from work.

Don’t forget all workers now have the right to request a flexible working arrangement and to have this seriously considered by their employer.

Long-term sickness

Perhaps the most difficult problem for smaller companies to deal with is long-term sickness. Managers need to balance the need for an employee to recover and get back to work and the need for the organisation to complete jobs and satisfy customers.

You must keep an open dialogue with the employee so that they are fully aware of any issues. Long-term sickness can be quite a complex problem and returning to work can cause anxiety. Try to be understanding and flexible – would an initial period of part-time work, for example, ease the person back into the work routine? You’ll also need to bear in mind compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act.

Short-term sickness

Short-term sickness can also have an impact on the workplace and it’s important to have clear procedures in place.

These could consist of:

  • rules on notifying absence – such as a need for an employee to phone in by a certain time on each day of their absence
  • ensuring your employees know the rules on notifying absence
  • having a proper policy on the provision of medical certificates (doctors’ notes) to cover absence where necessary (workers can self-certificate for up to seven days in one period of absence)
  • conducting return to work interviews advising an employee if their absence is putting their job at risk monitoring individual absence records having rules on absences close to holidays


Absenteeism from those who have the ‘odd day off’ and give ‘illness’ as the reason can be costly to an organisation as it is unpredictable. There may also be underlying reasons for this type of absenteeism, such as a lack of training or poor working conditions.

Consider whether there are any better ways of doing things to help solve the problem.

Fit notes

The Statement of Fitness for Work (also known as the Fit Note) is the new Medical Statement that doctors issue to patients whose health condition affects their ability to work.

Statements are only issued after seven days of sickness absence. Before this, employees can self certificate.

Fit notes allow a doctor to advise one of two options:

  • that the patient is unfit for work
  • that they may be fit for some work if appropriate support is available.

In the latter case, the doctor will advise the effects of the patient’s health condition and, if appropriate, what changes you could make – in agreement with the employee – which would help them get back to work as part of their recovery.

While you don’t have to act on the doctor’s advice, the statement may help you make simple and practical adjustments to help your staff return to work and reduce unnecessary sickness absence.

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According to research, average worker in the UK is absent from work for 8.4 days a year which costs UK businesses £12 billion a year and costs employers on average over £600 per employee per year. Nevertheless, absence of your workers clearly has an impact on productivity, so it’s no wonder many organisations are taking action to deal with it.