Absence Management Guide

  1. What is absence management?
  2. Why is it necessary?
  3. When is it necessary?
  4. Practice – Written procedures
  5. What should be included?
  6. The process
  7. The holistic approach

What is absence management?

It is:
“about finding a balance between providing support to help employees with health problems stay in and return to work, and taking consistent and firm action against employees who try to take advantage of organisations’ occupational sick pay schemes.”
(CIPD’s annual employee absence survey 2012)

Why is it necessary?

  • Average absence 6.8 days’ per person per year
  • 70% is short-term (up to 7 days)
  • 20% is long-term (4 weeks or more)
  • Average cost per employee is £600 p/d
  • £17 billion annually across the economy
  • Stress is the most common cause of long-term absence (4 weeks or more)
  • Colds & flu are the most common cause of short-term absence (up to 7 days)
  • 40% of employers reported that stress-related absence increased last year
  • The top causes of work stress are workload and management style

When is it necessary?

Reproduced from Appendix 1 to the ACAS Guide Managing Attendance and Employee Turnover

Measuring absence

The most common measure of absence is the lost time rate. This shows the percentage of the total time available which has been lost because of absence from all causes in a given period.

Total absence (hours or days) in the period x 100 = Lost time rate Possible total (hours or days) available in the period

For example, if the total absence in the period is 124 hours, and the possible total is 1,550 hours, the lost time rate is:

124 x 100 = 8%

The lost time rate can be regarded as an overall measure of the severity of the problem. If calculated separately by department or group of workers, it can show up particular problem areas.

Total time lost, however, may consist of a small number of people who are absent for long periods, or a large number absent for short spells. A measure of ‘frequency’ is needed to show how widespread the problem is, so that companies can formulate appropriate plans to reduce it.

The frequency rate shows the average number of spells of absence per worker (expressed as a percentage) irrespective of the length of each spell.

Number of spells of absence in the period x 100 = Frequency rate

If the organisation wishes to monitor the number of workers absent at all during the period the individual frequency rate can be used:

Number of workers having one or more spells of absence x 100 = Individual frequency rate

For example, in one month an organisation employed on average, 80 workers. During this time 12 workers had periods of absence: one was away three times, two were away twice and nine were away once, a total number of 16 spells of absence. The frequency rate was therefore:

16 x 100 = 20%

The individual frequency rate was:

12 x 100 = 15%

Another individual index of absence, developed by Bradford University, highlights repeated short-term absence by giving extra weight to the number of absences. It is given by the formula:

8Index (I) = S x S x H, where:
S = the number of absences; and
H = total hours absent in any given period

For example:
Worker with two periods of absence totalling 10 days (80 hours):
I = 2 x 2 x 80 = 320

Absentee with six periods of absence totalling 10 days (80 hours):
I = 6 x 6 x 80 = 2880

Organisations can use the indicator to provide a trigger point for investigation. It is important, however, to examine the particular circumstances leading to a high score before action is taken.

The law

  • Unfair dismissal
  • Discrimination
  • Contractual and other claims
  • ACAS ­ Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures (together with the Guide)
  • Access to Medial Reports Act 1998
  • Data Protection Act 1998

Unfair dismissal

  • Capability / conduct / SOSR as potentially fair reasons (PFR)
  • PFR depends on the specific circumstances:
    • Short-term persistent absence ­ SOSR/Capability
      • Int’l Sports v Thompson [1980] IRLR 340
      • Wilson v Post Office [2000] IRLR 834
    • Short-term “absenteeism” ­ Conduct
    • Long-term absence ­ Capability
  • The PFR will dictate the process to use
  • All have separate considerations but all subject to “band of reasonable responses” test (Iceland Frozen Foods Ltd v Jones [1982] IRLR 439)


  • Maternity/pregnancy discrimination
  • Indirect Sex Discrimination (CIPD data)
    • Disability
  • i.e. direct, indirect, “arising from disability”, and failure to make reasonable adjustments
  • Objective justification (not direct)

Contractual and other claims

  • Company sick pay
  • Permanent Health Insurance (PHI)
  • Personal injury (e.g. stress)
  • Health and Safety

Practice – Written procedures

Written procedures

  • Hugely important ­ whether a help or hindrance depends on drafting
  • Part of a larger ‘Capability’ procedure or a stand alone ‘sickness/absence procedure’
  • Both should refer to the potential use of a disciplinary procedure
  • Type of absence will dictate the PFR, which, in turn, will dictate the type of procedure e.g.
  • Persistent short-term ­ Part 1 of Absence procedure
  • Long-term ­ Part 2 of Absence procedure
  • Persistent short-term but absenteeism ­ Disciplinary
  • Failure to comply with procedures and lateness ­ Disciplinary
  • Supported by ACAS ­ Appendix 4 to the Guide (Code D&GPs)

What should be included?

General provisions

  • Contractual sick pay entitlements (no advantage of reference to discretionary payments)
  • Absence notification procedure
  • Self-certification period / process
  • When a Fit Note is required
  • Right to require employee to attend OH and (with consent) request a report from their doctor
  • Return to work interviews
  • Regular contact during absence
  • Policy on absence during holidays, adverse weather, etc
  • Include provision in disciplinary procedure for breach of procedure or other unacceptable absence
  • The employer reserves the right in capability procedure to deal with absence under either:
    • Sickness policy (Part 1 and Part 2)
    • Disciplinary
  • Reserve right to enter process / take level of action ­ depending on the circumstances
  • Right to appeal
  • Non-contractual policy

The process

The process (Persistent short-term)

  • Same vein as a performance procedure
  • Emphasis on providing the data to demonstrate unacceptable levels of absence
  • Review at a meeting ­ look at reasons ­ feedback from employee
  • Agree improvement plan:
    • Any changes to role / help
    • Fixed period of review (with right to extend)
    • Indication of acceptable attendance levels
    • Improvement warning / final warning / dismissal

The process (Long-term)

  • Does the Fit Note talk about changes to duties etc?
  • Regular contact during absence (by telephone)
  • Right to involve OH and/or other medical experts
  • Action to be taken following meetings and dependant upon:
    • Prognosis in medical report
    • Business requirements
    • Phased return / “adjustments” / training
    • Alternative positions

The holistic approach


  • Greater use of flexible working
  • Offer of unpaid special leave / Sabbaticals
  • Employee assistance programme / Telephone line
  • Specific stress counselling
  • “Pillow” or “Duvet” days
  • Attendance payments
  • Clause in the contract requiring regular and punctual attendance
  • Employee engagement and management

This publication is intended for general summary guidance. It is not and should not be considered legal advice. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases; we cannot be held responsible for any action (or decision not to take action) made in reliance upon the content of this publication.