September 26, 2023

Managing sickness absence – How to get ahead of the curve

Sign on desk saying "I'm on sick leave"

This summary is based on Judicium’s Employment Law ‘Sofa Session’ from the 20th of September, with resident expert Jenny Salero, LLB (Hons), L.P.C. This session focused on utilising return to work meetings, the importance of welfare meetings, and supporting staff to remain in the workplace.


During both sofa sessions, we surveyed 250 schools to ask if they have already had a member of staff off sick this autumn term  (which began 3-4 weeks prior).

A startling 95% responded Yes.

It is quite evident how prevalent sickness absence is amongst schools and Trusts. Therefore, below we’ve included our recommendations along with the most frequently asked questions from the sofa session.

5 Top Tips for Managing Sickness Absence

1. Start the year as you mean to go on

As we are at the start of a new academic year, now is the ideal time to review your current attendance rates across your teams.

As part of this process, we suggest policies are checked. Also, SLT and middle managers should be given training and guidance on how they may be utilised in the process (please see below for further detail on how we can help with this!) and managers should cross reference attendance records with current trigger points.

Where staff have hit trigger points, there are concerns about attendance, or staff remain absent from last term, managers should hold the relevant meeting (welfare/informal absence review/formal absence review) with the member of staff to draw a line in the sand, set expectations with regard to attendance, discuss any support that may be required, and inform staff of any next steps which may occur should attendance not improve.

2. Check in with staff regularly

Many managers often feel that welfare meetings can only take place once a member of staff is absent from work or where there are concerns about attendance. Welfare meetings should, of course, take place during these periods. Besides these periods, welfare meetings or ‘check-ins’ should take place regularly with staff. These meetings can be via email/letter invite, or can be as simple as a line manager ‘popping in’. They can be very helpful in picking up on earlier signs of stress or mental ill health so supportive steps can be put in place before concerns escalate, which could potentially lead to a lengthy absence.

3. Support staff as much as possible to remain in the workplace or at work

Employers should do as much as they can to support staff to avoid absences, as often, once an absence has commenced, it can be very difficult to reintroduce the employee into the workplace.

There is a legal requirement to consider reasonable adjustments to support staff to return or remain in the workplace where they are considered to be disabled from an employment perspective. However, regardless of any disability, there is nothing preventing employers from offering additional adjustments and support to staff at work. This could include:

  • Extending moveable deadlines
  • Providing additional PPA or cover to allow staff to catch up
  • Time to work from home if possible
  • Additional mentoring or support
  • Advertising’ an employee assistance programme or welfare support that is available.

Alongside welfare check-ins, the above won’t avoid all absences, but will help staff to feel supported and maintain their attendance at work.

4. Ensure Return to Work meetings are held and utilised well.

Wherever possible, we would advise that return to work (RTW) meetings are held after every absence. Although we appreciate this can feel time consuming or unnecessary, it is a great opportunity to check staff are well enough to return to work, explore the reasons for the absence and see if any support is required.

At each meeting we would suggest that previous absences are reviewed alongside trigger points to avoid odd days/intermittent absences falling through the cracks. We have seen a positive impact on attendance for schools who have adopted this approach, particularly for those common ‘Monday/Friday’ absences.

5. Don’t be afraid to reasonably contact staff when they are off sick

There is a common misconception that employers and managers cannot contact staff when they are absent from work. This is not the case. Both employers and employees have a duty to remain in ‘reasonable’ contact whilst absent from work. What this contact looks like and how frequent this may be will be dependent on the reasons for any absence and what is agreed with the member of staff.

However, do not be afraid to reach out to a member of staff when they are off sick to arrange a welfare call or absence meeting. Just because someone is signed off as unfit for work does not mean they are too unwell to attend a short meeting. Keeping in contact with staff is a crucial part of managing an absence and helping to facilitate a return to work.

5 Most Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is automatically classed as a disability from an employment perspective?

The Equality Act 2010 treats anyone suffering from cancer, HIV and Multiple Sclerosis (MS) as being disabled. Any other physical or mental impairment could amount to a disability, however this will be dependent on how long the employee has been impacted by the condition/s and how this effects the individual.

2. Should we have two separate policies – one for long term absence and one for short term absence?

Schools do not need to have separate policies (although you can), but the management of short term and long term sickness absence should be treated differently to prevent discrimination. Therefore, having one section to deal with short term intermittent absences and one section to deal with long term sickness absence is recommended.

The main difference between the two processes is that short-term sickness absence processes often lead to first/final warnings akin to a disciplinary warning. However, schools should not be seen to be disciplining staff for having a disability or underlying health condition. Therefore, the long-term aspect of the policy should warn staff that the school will move to the next stage in the process – an Improvement Notice, rather than a warning.

Furthermore, you can talk about improvements to attendance, rather than resolving the absence.  It’s a subtle play on words but dismissing for absence if the employee has an underlying health condition can be discriminatory.

Usually, absences will very clearly fall within one of these categories, but you must ensure you are referencing and utilising the correct policy and procedure from the outset.

3. Can we amend trigger points as an adjustment to support staff?

Yes, trigger points can be amended as a reasonable adjustments to support staff to meet attendance targets or maintain their attendance at work.

NB: We recommend using a 12-month rolling calendar when possible for trigger points.

4. Who can hold return to work meetings and do they need to be formal, minuted meetings or can they be informal chats?

This will depend on your policy and the structure of your organisation, but they can be held by a member of SLT, HR Team or middle managers. However, Schools may find that staff are more willing to open up and speak about concerns to their line managers who they know well, as opposed to a senior leader or HR team member they may not have a relationship with. You should consider in each circumstance who may be best placed to hold each meeting.

Return to work meetings can vary based on the type of sickness absence. In situations where a single day is taken for a short illness such as a cold, an informal chat with a line manager may be appropriate. It is important to record that these have taken place. Alternatively, for someone who is returning from a long sickness absence, it may be more appropriate to have a more formal meeting.

5. Can staff be accompanied at welfare meetings?

There is no legal right to be accompanied at welfare meetings as they are informal, but employers can choose to extend this right to union representatives or family/friends if they would like to support the member of staff.

Helpful Info:

If you’d like to review Judicium’s forthcoming sofa sessions for next term please click here

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© This content is the exclusive property of Judicium Education. The works are intended to provide an overview of the sofa session you attend and/or to be a learning aid to assist you and your school. However, any redistribution or reproduction of part or all of the contents in any form is prohibited. You may not, except with our express written permission, distribute or exploit the content. Failure to follow this guidance may result in Judicium either preventing you with access to our sessions and/or follow up content.

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