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Absence Management: Returning to Work

How can managers manage absence and aid a smooth return to work?


Short Term Absence


There are a number of techniques employers can use to help manage short term absence, from providing leave for family circumstance, changing working patterns to accommodate flexible working and providing an employee assistance programme to involving occupational health professionals, using trigger mechanisms to review attendance and having clear disciplinary procedures for unacceptable absence levels.

Return-to-work interviews are a particularly useful technique to help identify at an early stage whether an absence is likely to develop into an ongoing issue. They provide channels of communication between managers and employees, giving both an opportunity to talk about any underlying issues which may be causing absence, or are likely to cause an absence in the future. Return-to-work interviews can also be useful to highlight any underlying health conditions which may be causing repeated short-term absence. This can help ensure that, if any disciplinary action is taken, procedures are fair to any employees who have disabilities of any kind.

Employers should strive to create a positive attendance culture whilst highlighting that genuine sickness absence will be supported. Clear disciplinary procedures in the absence management process should indicate that unjustified absence will not be tolerated, and attendance-focused initiatives should be promoted among employees.

The Role of the Line Manager


Line managers are essential in helping employers promote a positive attendance culture, but it is also key to make sure that managers are trained in absence handling and are provided with tailored support from senior management. Managers should have good communication skills and be skilled in creating a positive environment for employees, where workers feel able to raise issues at an early stage. If line managers are able to spot early signs of potential absence issues, employers can avoid any need to escalate matters.

Ideally, a line manager should be trained in:

  • The organisation’s sickness absence policies and procedures;
  • Their role in the absence management process;
  • The way fit notes operate, and how to act upon any advice given by the doctor;
  • The legal and disciplinary aspects of absence, including potential disability discrimination issues;
  • Maintaining absence record-keeping and understanding facts and figures on absence;
  • If and how any trigger system operates;
  • The role of occupational health professionals and proactive measures to help support staff health and wellbeing;
  • Managing complex cases with the support of occupational health professionals and HR;
  • Return-to-work interview techniques;
  • The skills to raise and discuss potential issues, including those related to more complex or sensitive problems.

Managing Long-Term Absence


The definition of ‘Long-term absence’ can differ, but it is generally defined as lasting at least four weeks. It can be challenging to manage and the longer a person is absent, the harder it can be for them to return. Therefore, employers need to keep in touch with absent employees, ensuring all communication is sensitive, and have a formal return-to work strategy for those returning after a long-term period of absence. Employers should also be aware of any potential discrimination issues, and organisations should have a disability leave policy which separates absence linked to someone’s disability from generic sickness to avoid any disability discrimination issues.

Line managers are also vital in absence management, but other interventions are important, and could include:

  • Supportive return-to-work interviews which discuss any necessary adjustments, ongoing or otherwise;
  • The role of occupational health professional and proactive measures to support staff health and wellbeing;
  • A supportive management approach, which could include involving HR, occupational health services and the employee’s line manager;
  • Risk assessments to help facilitate return to work after a long-term absence;
  • Changes to work patterns or environment, including flexible working.

There are five key elements in the recovery and return-to-work process:

  • Keeping in contact with unwell employees in a sensitive manner to help prevent them feeling isolated.
  • Planning and implementing any necessary workplace adjustments, consulting the employee throughout the process.
  • Seeking and accessing professional advice and treatment.
  • Planning and co-ordinating a sensitive and efficient return-to-work plan.
  • Regular chats with the employee about how they are adjusting to being back at work.

The Acas Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures as well as an organisation’s own absence procedures, should provide managers with the main principles for addressing any employee absence, although care must be taken that these are used properly.

Employers may also need to make reasonable adjustments to support employees who, under the provisions of the Equality Act 2010, have a disability or health condition as outlined in that Act. As a manager, you should be aware that both physical and mental health conditions may be covered under this legislation. Further to this, if an employer request a medical report from a health professional, employers must follow the Access to Medical Records Act 1988 and must be careful not to breach the 2018 Data Protection Act when collecting, using, or storing information about their employees’ absences. Details or an employee’s health are categorised as ‘sensitive personal data’ under this Act, and must be treated with extra care.


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