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Absenteeism – Denying ‘duvet days’

By Thomas Sutherland

Dishonest use of sickness leave by employees can be one of the most challenging issue for employers.

Whilst the majority of sickness leave is taken on genuine grounds, employers can find it frustrating when a certain employee appears to be absent on a regular basis with what might appear to be trivial or fictitious ailments.

Absent employees can cost employers significant amounts of money. The Office of National Statistics has calculated that 131 million days were lost through sickness absence in the UK in 2013, an average of 4.4 days per employee.

Indeed, Acas estimates that absence costs the UK economy around £17 billion per year through damage to reputation caused by reduced customer service and delayed work, the cost of hiring replacement staff and reduced workplace morale.

Multiple occurrences of short-term sickness leave, particularly when conforming to a pattern, can give rise to suspicions of dishonest use of sickness leave. Common examples include the illness not appearing serious enough to warrant absence, not being genuinely ill, or using sickness leave for holidays or job interviews (particularly on dates on which they have previously been refused holiday leave).

In situations where an employer has a reasonably held belief of dishonesty, two potential routes present themselves.

The first is the introduction of an objective system, such as the ‘Bradford factor’, to calculate the potential action to be taken in light of an employee’s sickness leave use. The Bradford factor is a calculation which uses the number of sick days taken against the number of periods away from office and produces an end figure. The calculation is weighted so as to punish regular, short-term periods away from the workplace.

This has proven to be a major deterrent to employees, with the Prison Service previously reporting a 18% drop in absenteeism following the introduction of a Bradford-based system.

However, caution should be used in ensuring that the points system is tuned to the actual needs of the business before it is implemented.

The second route is to engage in staged disciplinary action against the employee on misconduct grounds. This would apply to scenarios involving dishonesty or ‘playing the system’. In some circumstances, the conduct could be treated as gross misconduct and could lead to dismissal.

Naturally, any allegations of dishonesty should first be fully investigated through reasonable, non-confrontational steps. Legal or HR advice should be sought before any action is taken against the employee.

Attention should always be made to the possibility of disability factors contributing to the level of absence. If disability turns out to be an explanatory factor, the employer should consider what reasonable adjustments they can make.

Importantly, employers should always ensure that this procedure is applied in a fair and proportionate manner.

In light of the above, it is essential that suitable HR and legal advice is obtained as to the monitoring of leave, the procedure for reporting sickness leave and the potential use of disciplinary or absence management action.

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