How do I stop staff taking so many sick days?

  • Leave and Absence
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

(Last updated )

  • “I threw up when the tinned tuna I ate turned out to be cat food.”
  • “I’m feeling too upset after finishing The Hunger Games.”
  • “I accidentally sent my uniform to the charity shop.”

Which excuse do you think a real UK worker used to explain their absence? (You’ll find the answer at the end of this article.)

You’re probably aware that sick days at work are a problem. But did you know that over 130 million days of no-shows cost the UK economy £77.5bn each year?

And while a few days off here and there might seem harmless, regular or long-term absences can wreck your productivity—especially if you run a small business.

So how many sick days are too many? And what can you do to reduce them? Read on…

What’s a fair amount of time off?

It’s a common question, yet it’s hard to answer.

Recent surveys show that most workers spend around five days off work due to illness each year.

But it’s not the amount of days that’s the problem. You need to focus on the effects that the absence is having.

If someone’s constant sickness means they’re not doing their job properly, you need to act. Because if you can’t rely on your staff to come in and work, your business can’t function.

So what can you do to create a reliably present workforce?

Write thorough workplace policies

As soon as a worker joins, you need to make it clear what you expect of them when they’re sick. And you can do this by including a sickness policy in your handbook or contracts.

You’re in charge, so you get to set the rules. But here are a few suggestions:

  • Employees must get in contact before their shift starts.
  • They must call, not text or email (calling makes it harder to fake an illness).
  • They must give the reason for their absence and when they think they’ll be back.
  • After seven calendar days’ absence, they must send in a doctor’s note.
  • Hold a ‘return to work’ interview when the employee returns (more on this later).

Studies show that absences go up during school holidays. So be considerate and make allowances for smaller emergencies, like if a family member needs looking after. This reduces people ‘pulling sickies’ and stops a culture of distrust developing in your workplace.

Don’t worry if you don’t have any policies already in place, or if the ones you do have aren’t as strong as you’d like. Peninsula writes and updates policies that protect your business.

Keep detailed records

Each time a worker is ill, make sure you log the length of absence and the nature of the illness. That way, you can start to spot patterns, such as ‘headaches’ on Fridays after Thursday staff drinks.

These patterns will also help you make your workplace healthier and safer. If a worker is often ill with migraines, you could look into reducing the brightness of the lights or computer screens.

And when your employee is back, you should invite them to a ‘return to work’ meeting. A chat will help you learn whether, from their point of view, you can do anything to make work a better place for them, and prevent more time off.

To make recording sick leave easier, BrightHR’s smartphone app lets you track staff attendance, scan hospital letters, send updates to senior staff and more. Request a free demo today.

Offer support when suitable

If someone’s off with a more serious illness, send a card from the team. Call and ask if there’s anything you can do to help. Let them feel at ease to take off as much time as they need.

Making your employee feel appreciated and missed can lift their spirits when they’re at their lowest.

And from a business point of view, it makes them want to return to work quicker and perform better.

Don’t overlook policy breaches

While you want to be kind and supportive, your employees need to know there are consequences if they try to take advantage of you by regularly calling in sick.

You need to deal with unexplained absences, and evidence that suggests a worker wasn’t really ill, to prevent others from ‘trying it on’ too.

Just make sure the severity of your sanction matches the level of offence. If you treat a worker harshly, especially if they really were ill, then they could claim disability discrimination and take you to a tribunal.

Staff sickness is a lot to deal with, and without specialist help you can find yourself in deep trouble…

Get expert HR advice

Whether you need help with everyday issues like sick day allowance, or want advice on life-changing decisions like an employee dismissal, call Peninsula now on 0800 028 2420.

As for which excuse was really used by a UK worker? You guessed it. All three.


Got a question? Check whether we’ve already answered it for you…

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