Expert advice on the business of running a garment decoration company


One of my employees is taking lots of days off sick – how do I deal with it?

Dealing with an employee taking excessive sick leave can be a tricky task for SMEs. It can be unpredictable, time-consuming and the process can be open to abuse by staff. However, that’s only if the situation isn’t managed effectively. There’s lots you can do to ensure that excessive sickness absence – to give its official title – does not disproportionately impact on business performance.

Start with a well-drafted policy

The starting point is a well-drafted sickness absence policy. Having an effective policy in place will help you to deal with absences consistently and effectively, as well as making employees aware of the standards of attendance and reporting that you expect from them.

When you’re dealing with an individual taking excessive sick leave, monitoring and recording their absence is crucial. It’s particularly important that employers and managers have an accurate picture of the level and patterns of sickness absence of the person in question (as well as across the business), so that patterns or potential problems can be identified and applicable procedures applied consistently. Some businesses use additional monitoring systems such as the Bradford Factor, which applies weighting to different types of absences (the ‘long weekend’ sickness bug receiving a high weighting score, for instance).

Be consistent with return to work interviews

Applied consistently across a business, return to work interviews are proven to reduce sickness absence, and are key to dealing with an employee taking excessive sick leave. Simply put, nobody likes to sit across a table, look into their manager’s eyes and explain why they’re being repeatedly absent. If your employee understands and sees that you’re on the ball by routinely carrying out return to work interviews, you’ll tend to find that their sickness absence (and that of others in your workforce) decreases.

Line managers will be the first port of call for employees calling in sick, so make sure they know what questions to ask and how to handle the call. Training them to understand the company’s sickness absence policy is a good start, as is knowing the basics of what evidence you can ask for: usually a self-certification form for the first seven calendar days or less, followed by a doctor’s certificate for longer absences.

Be firm and careful

When absence becomes a problem, employers need to act firmly, but carefully. When an employee has a series of short-term absences, it can be easy to overlook the fact that there’s a pattern emerging, so you may be slow to realise that the matter needs to be dealt with formally. It’s important to address whether there’s an underlying health condition that’s giving rise to the absences and to satisfy yourself that the absences are genuine. The employee’s absence may actually be due to a problem with a colleague or manager or workload. You’ll only know this through effective investigation and appropriate communication.

If it turns out that an employee is taking an excessive amount of absence, then a formal meeting may be required which should involve you exploring the following:

  • The effect of the pattern of absences on the employee’s colleagues, department and the business
  • The likelihood of continuing absences and the impact they are likely to have.
  • Whether there are changes to the employee’s job or redeployment opportunities that would assist in attendance, and reduce the effect of absence on colleagues or the business
  • Whether the employee has an underlying health condition and, if so, whether there are any reasonable adjustments that could be made at work
  • Whether it is appropriate to give the employee a formal warning that their attendance levels need to improve.

Gavin Howarth is managing director at Howarths. The company specialises in HR, employment law and health and safety advice for SMEs across the UK.