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Accountants in Practice


All organisations will experience staff being absent from work. Managing absence in an appropriate way that is fair to the organisation and its staff is therefore essential.  

Why are people absent?

Absence from work can usually fit in to either of the following.

Planned or authorised absence

This is absence that an employer knows about in advance and can plan how to cover to avoid disruption to the organisation. Examples include annual leave, maternity leave and some types of long term sickness.

Unplanned or unauthorised absence

This is absence which an employer is unaware of until just before it happens. This can sometimes make it difficult for an employer to plan cover arrangements. Examples of unplanned absence include short term sickness, travel disruption and domestic emergencies.

It can include when a worker fails to turn up to work without any reason being given or contact being made. If this happens an employer should attempt to contact their worker as soon as possible, including using an emergency contact. If contact cannot be made the employer should discuss the absence with the worker on their return.

If no satisfactory reason is provided for the absence and the failure to contact their employer, it could warrant disciplinary action.

Providing a fit note when absent

If a worker is absent due to sickness for seven days or less they can self-certify their absence. This means the worker informs their employer that they are not well enough to work and do not need to provide any further medical evidence.

If a period of absence due to sickness lasts longer than seven calendar days (regardless of how many days they work each week) then a worker must provide their employer with a fit note.

A Fit Note (or The Statement for Fitness for Work), is a medical statement that GPs or hospital doctors issue. It aims to focus on what an employee may be able do at work rather than what they cannot do. A doctor can use a fit note to advise that a worker:

  • is not fit for work
  • may be fit for work.

When stating that an individual may be fit for work, the GP should consider fitness for work in general, not fitness for a specific job that the employee is doing.

If a worker may be fit for work, a doctor can suggest ways of helping the worker get back to work. This might mean recommending:

  • a phased return to work
  • flexible working
  • amended duties
  • workplace adaptations.

An employer should consider any recommendations made on a fit note. Accommodating the changes may help the employee be fully fit for work quicker. If the absence is due to a disability, an employer must consider making 'reasonable adjustments' to help them return to work and carry out their job.  

If an employer is unable or unwilling to make the recommended changes then the employee may remain off sick for the duration of the fit note.

Sick pay

If a worker is absent for four or more days in a row they may qualify for SSP (Statutory Sick Pay). It is payable for 28 weeks. To qualify, a worker must earn at least the Lower Earning Limit.

Since April 2018 the rate for SSP has been £92.05 per week. The amount is reviewed every April. From 6th April 2019, the rate will increase to £94.25 per week.

Further information regarding SSP can be obtained at GOV.UK - Statutory Sick Pay (SSP).

Some employers may offer contractual sick pay. It cannot be less than SSP.

If an employer offers contractual sick pay, it should include the rate of sick pay and how long it is payable for in the terms and conditions of employment.

Contact during sick leave

There should be regular contact between an employer and an absent employee. An agreement should be reached as to how often and how the contact should be made. This should be used to:

  • check on the employees wellbeing
  • be clear about what pay the employee is receiving
  • see if there is anything the employer can be doing to support the employee
  • explain any updates or changes that are taking place within the organisation.

Return to work discussions

A return to work meeting is common at the end of a period of absence. Having one may be included in an employer's absence policy or company handbook. In most organisations, discussions will be informal and brief and should be held as soon as possible following the period of absence. It is generally intended to:

  • welcome a worker back
  • check the worker is well enough to be at work
  • discuss the reason for the absence
  • update the worker on anything that has happened at work while they have been absent.

If a worker has been absent from work often, a return to work discussion can be an opportunity to discuss any underlying problems causing this. For example, if the sickness is work-related or if they are having any problems at work or home.

Managing short term sickness

Short term absences - those that last a day or two - are the most common cause of sickness absence. A worker should let their employer know as soon as possible if they are unable to attend work. Regardless of the length of the absence an employer should hold a return to work discussion once the worker is back at work.

Review points

An employer should expect a satisfactory level of attendance from their staff. To monitor this an employer may set review points (sometimes called trigger points) of a certain number of days or occasions of sickness absence.

If an employee exceeds these review points then the employer may consider issuing a formal warning. If absences continue, it could lead to further disciplinary action and ultimately dismissal.

Managing long term sickness

Handling long-term absence can be difficult because the illness may be serious, involve an operation and recovery time, or could be a mental health issue. These require a sympathetic approach.

An employer should:

  • assess if colleagues can manage or whether they need to hire someone on a temporary contract
  • consider asking the employee for permission to contact their GP to assess:
    • whether a return to work will be possible and if so when
    • whether a return to the same work would be advisable
    • whether a phased return would help
    • whether the employee is disabled and therefore reasonable adjustments need to be made
    • whether a return to lighter, less stressful, work would be advisable.

Patterns of absence

An employer may notice a pattern of absence with a particular worker. For example, regularly being late on a certain day of the week or being off sick after a particular event.

An employer should use a return to work discussion to discuss the pattern with the worker and explore whether there is any underlying reason behind it.

For example, it could be that a worker's personal circumstances have changed, and this is leading to their attendance issues.

Where issues are identified, an employer should consider whether there is any support or temporary adjustments that may help the worker attend work regularly and on time.

Absence policies

An employer should have an absence policy in place to make it clear exactly what is expected if an employee is absent. An absence policy should include:

  • how to report absences. Who to contact and when contact should be made
  • when an employee will be required to provide a fit note
  • when return to work discussions will be held and by whom
  • any review points that have been set by the employer
  • whether the employer uses an Occupational Health referral scheme and when this will be introduced
  • what pay will be received and how long for.