Employers often find absence a tricky thing to manage. There is a need to balance compassion for the individual, the realities of life (we all get ill or injured at some point) and the sound running of the business.
With scenes of chaos at airports and stories of flights cancelled at the last minute, Covid once again is to blame for disrupting our lives. In this case, it is due to high absence levels as a result of employees forced to isolate due to the risk of spreading a highly contagious virus that has affected so many people.
So what should employers do about absences, especially where the employee must stay off but feels fine?
The importance of a procedure
A robust absence management procedure is essential. It can help employers gain an overview of absence levels, manage excessive absences and put in place reasonable adjustments for disabled employees.
Key to managing absence is setting out expectations. Reasonable expectations of average absence levels are good to set out and act as triggers for action should absence levels exceed them. What is reasonable, of course, will depend on the organisation, the nature of the work and the individual employee. However, setting general standards (that are adjusted on an individual basis) is still a valuable exercise.
Some employees may have high absence levels due to a condition that affects their ability to perform day-to-day tasks on a long-term basis and, as such, constitute a disability under the Equality Act 2010. Where this is the case, employers must act carefully so as not to treat these employees less favourably than their colleagues.
Where there is a disability, the Equality Act 2010 requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the disability to enable the employee to perform their duties. These reasonable adjustments also apply to absence triggers, and depending on the nature and severity of the disability, these may need to be either adjusted for the individual circumstances or removed all together if they are impossible for the employee to meet.
Removing absences entirely from consideration
Alternatively, some employees may have to be absent due to a requirement placed upon them, such as Covid isolation or where the employer has sent the employee home from work. Where this is the case, it would not be appropriate to include these absences as part of the employees overall absence figures, as in reality they had no choice but to be away from work and it could be viewed as ‘punishment’ for following the rules set down by either the Government, or now that isolation is no longer legally required, the employer.
Another situation that requires absences to be excluded from absence triggers are temporary conditions, such as pregnancy, that can impact an employee’s ability to attend work consistently. Again, to these employees, absence triggers should not be applied, as it would be discriminatory to do so. It is also worth noting that an employee who has suffered a miscarriage remains protected as though still pregnant for two weeks after the event.
Finally, absences that are connected with family friendly leave, such as emergency time off for dependents, parental bereavement leave, etc, should also not be included in absence triggers. This is due to the fact these rights are a) protected in law and therefore employees should not suffer a detriment from exercising them, and b) these are not sickness absences, but connected to a situation with another.