Absence Management: Best Practice For Employers


Time lost due to employee absence costs employers, both in relation to the unworked hours and in the time needed to manage the absence, arrange cover and provide support where required on the return to work.

But absences from work are an inevitable part of running an organisation, where staff may be off work for a number of different reasons. In many cases, work absences will be pre-planned, such as annual leave or maternity and paternity leave, whilst in others, absences may be unplanned, for example, due to illness or family emergencies. Some absences may even be unauthorised, where the employee is absent from work without a legitimate reason.

By implementing an effective absence management plan, it will enable you to support employees’ needs, whilst also being able to monitor unauthorised absences or misuse of sick pay schemes.

In this guide, we detail the rights and responsibilities of both the employer and the employee when it comes to different types of work absences, and how these absences can be managed.


Identifying the causes of absence

A successful approach to absence management should consider the causes of workforce absence and develop appropriate strategies and policies to deal with them. Certain levels of absence are an unavoidable feature of being an employer, and your absence management efforts should offer support to those employees who are legitimately absent. Your key aim is to facilitate a fast and safe return to work as soon as possible. Together with handling genuine illness absence positively, you also need to implement measures to tackle and discourage non-legitimate absence.

Work absences will broadly fall into one of the following three categories:

  • Planned work absences: these could include annual leave or maternity/paternity leave, care for dependants, compassionate leave, or education leave
  • Unplanned but legitimate absences: such as sickness absence and family emergencies
  • Unauthorised work absences: these could include malingering or frequent lateness.


How to manage workplace absence

There are so many different types of work absences that can take place, some planned and some unplanned, that it would be impossible to approach each one in the same way. These absences all require very different handling and management, as they each give rise to varied rights and responsibilities, and present very different challenges and risks.

Undoubtedly, pre-planned and authorised absences are easiest to manage, especially as plenty of notice must be given for annual leave or maternity and paternity leave. However, dealing with and documenting holiday requests can be time-consuming, and requests must be handled sensitively, for example, where staff are asking for time off work at the same time of year, such as during the school holidays. Maternity and paternity leave also requires careful management, where cover will often be needed for extended lengths of time.

In contrast, unplanned absences not only require careful handling, but constant monitoring, to help the employer identify any potential patterns and trends, for example, where an employee is repeatedly off work sick with different ailments. Whilst on the face of it an absence may appear to be unauthorised, these types of absences could also be a warning sign of potential underlying issues. In all cases, being able to accurately record and monitor work absences, and having in place suitable procedures for fairly addressing the various different types of absences from work, is the key to effective absence management.


Managing planned absences 

Planned absences refer to those absences that are typically booked out by the employee but authorised in advance, for example, by an employee’s line manager or HR. These types of absences usually cover periods of leave which an employee is entitled to as matter of law, either under the terms and conditions of their contract of employment, or with reference to their minimum statutory rights, such as annual leave and maternity or paternity leave.


Annual leave

Annual leave is, by far, the most common type of planned and authorised absence from work. All employees are legally entitled to at least 5.6 weeks’ paid holiday a year, although an employee’s contract of employment may make provision for longer.

An employer can lawfully refuse a leave request, for example, at certain busy times, and they can also tell their staff to take leave, for example, on bank holidays or over Christmas. However, employers cannot refuse to let employee’s take their leave at all, and they cannot force an ill or injured worker to take annual leave instead of sick leave.

It is also important for employers to encourage employees to make full use of their annual leave, to ensure that they relax and recharge. Having planned time off work can be key to promoting good physical and mental health which, in turn, can increase employee engagement and reduce sickness absences, especially around work-related stress.


Maternity & paternity leave

Regardless of how long an employee has worked for their employer, as long as they tell their employer when their baby is due at least 15 weeks before the estimated week of childbirth, and when they would like to start their statutory maternity leave, they will be eligible for 52 weeks’ leave. The earliest that maternity leave can be taken is 11 weeks before the expected due-week, unless the baby is born early. However, employers cannot lawfully refuse maternity leave or change the amount of leave an employee wants to take.

When it comes to paternity leave, the employee must have been continuously employed by their employer for at least 26 weeks up to any day in the ‘qualifying week’, where the qualifying week is the 15th week before the baby is due. The employee must also provide the employer with at least 15 weeks’ notice before the baby’s due date. Provided the employee meets the continuous service requirement, and gives the employer the correct period of notice, they will be entitled to a statutory minimum of 2 weeks’ paternity leave.


Managing unplanned absences

Unplanned absences refer to those absences that are unexpected, for example, through either illness or injury, or due to a family emergency. Still, as a matter of law, the employee is usually entitled to take time off work for certain legitimate reasons.


Sickness leave

Sickness leave is, by far, the most common type of unplanned absence from work. This is where an employee is classed as unfit for work through either illness or injury.

If an employee is off work sick for 7 calendar days or less, they are not legally obliged to provide their employer with a fit note, although the employee can be asked to self-certify on their return their return to work. However, if an employee has been unwell for more than 7 consecutive days, including bank holidays and weekends, they must provide the employer with a fit note from their GP. This is to medically certify their inability to work.

In many cases, an employee may be off sick only in the short-term. However, there may be times when an employee is more seriously ill or injured, where they will need to be absent from work in the long-term. This can often cause operational issues for employers, where the cost of long-term cover makes it impossible to keep an employee’s job open for them. However, whilst an employee on long-term sick leave can be dismissed on grounds of capability, this will only be lawful if they are no longer capable of doing their job and all reasonable adjustments have been made to support their return to work.

The point at which it may be considered reasonable to dismiss an employee on long-term sick leave will depend on the likely length of their continuing absence, any ongoing treatment and the level of disruption to the business. However, any failure to first explore how an employee can be supported in the workplace, can expose an employer to the risk of a very costly and time-consuming claim for unlawful disability discrimination.


Family emergencies

All employees are allowed time off work to deal with an emergency involving a dependant. A dependant could include a spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent or anyone else who depends on the employee for care. The employee will be allowed a reasonable amount of time off to deal with the emergency in question, for example, if an employee’s child falls ill, they could take time off work to go to the child’s doctor and to make care arrangements.

If the employee wants longer to look after their child, the employer could ask them to take this as either annual leave or unpaid parental leave. Parental leave is a period of up to 18 week’s leave for each child up to their 18th birthday that can be taken by an eligible employee to look after their child’s welfare. An employee will be eligible for parental leave if they have been with the business for at least a year. This must be taken in whole weeks, not individual days, up to 4 weeks in any given year, unless the employer agrees otherwise.


Managing unauthorised absences

Unauthorised absences refer to any absence from work for which there is not a legitimate reason including, for example, where it is apparent that the employee is fabricating or exaggerating illness or injury to get time off work, or where they are frequently late.



Any failure by an employee to provide a fit note, where applicable, means that the employer can treat the employee’s absence from work as unauthorised. It may even be the case that the employee has provided a fit note, but there is evidence that casts doubt on whether they are genuinely unfit for work, such as being seen out socialising. There may also be a clear pattern emerging of persistent and implausible short-term absences.

Bogus sick leave, also commonly known as malingering, is a form of fraudulent behaviour that breaches the implied duty of mutual trust and confidence between the employer and employee. If an employee is suspected of malingering, this constitutes a serious misconduct matter for which disciplinary action, including dismissal, may be justified.

However, the employer must have clear and credible evidence of malingering before dismissing an employee, where any dismissal must be fair in all the circumstances. If an employer fails to fully investigate allegations of malingering, or makes a decision to dismiss without being able to substantiate any findings of dishonesty, this could result in a claim for unfair dismissal. Equally, wrongfully accusing an employee of dishonesty could result in a breach of the implied duty of trust and confidence on the employer’s part. This, in turn, could lead to the employee’s forced resignation and a claim for constructive dismissal.


Frequent lateness

Lateness is perhaps the most common type of unauthorised absence, where almost every employee will be late from time to time for reasons very often out of their control. In these instances, it is important for an employer to show a certain level of understanding, so as to support an employee’s mental wellbeing, although an employee being regularly late without good reason could become a potential disciplinary matter.

Sill, employers must always exercise caution when dealing with any issue of unauthorised work absences, including lateness, as this may be a symptom of a much more serious problem, such as work-related stress, or even bullying and harassment.

An employer has a duty of care to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all its’ employees, and to take all reasonable steps to support them. As such, rather than punishing an employee for being late, or for missing work, it can often be better to try to identify the root cause of the problem and, where needed, to take suitable steps to help remedy that problem. This could include, for example, providing the employee with suitable support measures, such as flexible start times or reduced working hours for anyone with work-related stress, or taking disciplinary action against co-workers guilty of unlawful conduct.


How many absences from work are permitted?

When it comes to assessing work absences, and what level is acceptable, much will depend upon the nature of the absence. In the context of pre-planned and authorised absences, such as annual leave or maternity and paternity leave, the number of days or weeks permitted will come down to the terms and conditions of the employee’s contract of employment. In some cases, the employee may have enhanced contractual rights whilst, in others, the employee may only be entitled to the statutory minimum period of leave.

In the context of unplanned absences, including sick leave and family emergencies, there is no upper limit on the number of days that can be taken, where much will depend on the nature of the employee’s illness or injury, or the family emergency in question. However, in the context of sick leave, most employers will set a minimum threshold over a set period of time, where absences that exceed this threshold may trigger an absence review. There may also be a point at which an employee is classed as on long-term sick leave, for example, after 4 weeks, which will also trigger absence review meetings to assess their prognosis.


Measuring absence

An effective absence management programme requires employers to understand the scope of absenteeism within the business. This will help to shape any absence policy and tailor it to the business’s culture and objectives.

There are several ways you can measure time lost through absence, but in all cases these methods depend on effective record keeping. It will be important to keep and maintain records of the reasons for all absences. Employers should ensure any absence policy or procedure requires all workers to provide the reason for being off work when reporting or requesting absence.

The most commonly used measure is the “lost time rate”. This shows the percentage of total time available that has been lost during a certain period of time because of any type of absence. The lost time is calculated by dividing the total absence in hours or days within the chosen period, by the possible total in hours or days in that period, and then multiplying by 100.

For example, if there are total absence hours of 120 in a possible 1500 hours available within that period, the lost time rate is: 120/1500 x 100 which equates to 8% (rounded to the nearest 0.5%).

The lost time rate determines sickness levels within a business and can be used by departments or teams who want to determine whether they have absence issues in certain areas. However, since this measure only summarises time lost, figures can be distorted if a few employees are away on long-term sick leave or if a larger number of employees have a high number of short-term absences. A better measure might be to use the “frequency rate”.

The frequency rate determines the average number of periods of absence per employee as a percentage. But it does not give any indication of the duration of each absence period, and no measure of employees who have taken over one period of sickness. Frequency rate is calculated by dividing the number of instances of absence in the period by the number of employees within that period and multiplying by 100.

For example, if you employed an average of 85 employees in a three-month period, and there were a total of 19 instances of sickness during that time, the frequency rate for absence would be: 19/85 x 100 = 22.35% (rounded to the nearest 0.5%).

If you want to identify as a percentage the number of individual employees who have been absent during a specified period of time, you will need to use the “individual frequency rate” to calculate it. Similar to the frequency rate, it does not show the length of each period of sickness absence. To calculate the individual frequency rate, you should divide the number of employees with one or more instances of absence during a period by the number of employees in the period, then multiply by 100.

You can identify the disturbance to your business caused by persistent short-term absence, by using the “Bradford factor”. This method gives additional weight to the number of periods of sickness taken by each employee. It is calculated by multiplying the total number of instances of absence in 52 weeks for a particular employee by the number of days of absence in 52 weeks. For example, if an employee has four instances of absence that total nine days in 52 weeks, the Bradford factor would be: 4 x 4 x 9 = 144.

For those businesses who set absence triggers to investigate absence when it reaches a certain level, the Bradford factor can be a useful tool to measure sickness absenteeism. Use of the Bradford factor can be controversial because an individual’s disability may predispose them to regular short-term absences. The Equality Act 2010 ensures that processes and procedures related to absences must be adjusted for employees with a disability. Failure to do this could result in tribunal action if the employee was found to have been unfairly disciplined because they received a high Bradford factor score.


Absence management policy

Your business should have a clear policy in place for dealing with absences and which explain the obligations and rights of employees when they are away from work because of sickness.

The law requires you to provide your employees with information on the terms and conditions relating to injury or incapacity, including any provision made for sick pay and any other related benefits.

The policy should:

  • Provide details of contractual sick pay, its terms and conditions, and the relationship with statutory sick pay
  • Explain the procedure for notifying the workplace of sickness, such as when, how and who the sickness should be reported to if they are not fit enough to attend work
  • Include timescales (how many days) when you expect the employee to complete a self-certification form
  • Stipulate when employees need to provide a fit note from their GP. When completing a fit note, a GP can choose between two options: not fit for work or may be fit for work. If the GP selects “may be fit for work”, there are four subcategories to choose from: passed return to work, amended duties, altered hours, or workplace adaptations. The GP can also make additional comments which may assist the employees transition back to work. Any employee who has been deemed “may be fit for work” should meet with their employer to discuss appropriate ways to manage their return to work.
  • If your business uses a review or trigger point system, provide an explanation as to how it operates and when it is used
  • State that the business reserves the right to require employees to attend an examination by an occupational health professional or company doctor. And with the employee’s consent, circumstances where you will seek to obtain a report from the employees GP
  • Explain provisions for return to work interviews (do they happen after each bout of sickness absence or does the employee have to be absent for a certain period of time to trigger such an interview). Whatever you decide, you should make it clear within the policy
  • If any adjustments need to be made upon the employees return to work, explain these will be adhered to as soon as it is practicable to make them
  • Provide guidance on absence during adverse events such as the pandemic, snow or during major sporting events such as the World Cup or Olympic Games.
  • Make clear any disciplinary procedures for unacceptable or persistent absences. That those unjustified absences will not be tolerated, and absence policies enforced.


Remember also that discrimination legislation should not be breached when enforcing any absence management policy. To avoid breaching disability discrimination legislation, an employer must make reasonable adjustments to support any employees who have a disability or health condition as provided in the Equality Act 2010. It is important to remember physical and mental health conditions may also be covered in the legislation.

If you have to request a medical report from a health professional, you must follow the Access to Medical Records Act 1988. You must also ensure you do not breach the Data Protection Act 2018 if you collect, use or store information about your employee’s absence.


Absence management best practice 

Incentivise attendance – Offering rewards to employees who do not take days off or a prize to those who take the fewest days off sick can often be an excellent approach. You must ensure the incentive scheme is fair across the board and there are safeguards in place for your employees’ wellbeing.

Create a pleasant working environment – Is it too hot, too cold? Is it comfortable and can they take breaks away from the screen? If you can provide an environment where your staff are happy to come in every day, you will minimise the instances of short-term absenteeism.

Increasing holiday entitlement – If your employees are only receiving the bare minimum in holiday entitlement, is it surprising they take an occasional sick day here and there? By allocating more holidays – you could consider a sliding scale depending on years of service – can be really effective in reducing the number of ad hoc sick days taken. It will also be less disruptive to your business, as you will be able to manage staff absences better because they will be planned.

Consider “duvet days” – This incentive is increasing in popularity. It is when an employee has the option to phone in sick, even when they are not actually unwell. When used sensibly, it can work really well, particularly when it comes to boosting staff morale.

Make absence policies clear – Always ensure you have a very clear policy free from ambiguity. In most cases demanding employees phone in sick by a certain time in the morning reduces absences. Because when an employee has to chat with their line manager or HR about their sickness, they may have second thoughts about taking a “sickie”.

Make the most of return to work interviews – Conducting return to work interviews really helps to minimise bogus sick days.

Monitor absences to understand trends – Utilise monitoring methods and software to measure absence, you will be able to spot a trend, habits or patterns which may require intervention or support from your HR team.

Adopt flexible working – A 9 – 5 working day doesn’t always suit everyone, allowing employees to manage their time and decide their own hours can make a tremendous difference to those who would otherwise be absent. Putting faith in your employees to manage their time and deliver the work can have a positive effect both on staff morale and reducing absenteeism.


Need assistance?

DavidsonMorris work with employers to support with all aspects of workforce management, including absence management. Working closely with our employment lawyers, our HR consultants provide holistic guidance on developing and implementing effective policies and procedures to help reduce absenteeism and promote positive workplace behaviours in relation to absence. For expert advice, contact us.


Absence management FAQs

What is absence management?

Absence management is a process that monitors and gives a clear view of employees’ attendance in the workplace. It also monitors attendance related issues such as illness, holidays, maternity leave, or persistent lateness. Absence management is a vital business tool to maintain optimum productivity.

How can absences be managed?

Absences can be managed in several ways and can be tailored to meet your business’s culture and objectives. There is no one size fits all approach, and the starting point should be to measure your staff absence, which will help you develop a tailored absence management policy.

What is absence management in HRM?

Absence management in HRM is about reducing absenteeism via implementation of policies and procedures. To be effective, such policies will need to be effectively communicated to employees and managers, with HR taking a pro-active role in applying them.

Why is absence management important?

An effective absence management policy should support the health requirements of your employees whilst giving clear and consistent guidance to avoid unauthorised absences or inappropriate use of sick pay schemes.

How many absences are too many at work?

There is no legal upper limit on absences from work, although employers will often set a threshold, for example, for sickness absence, which will trigger an absence review procedure once this threshold has been exceeded.

What are the four types of absences?

The four main types of work absences are annual leave, maternity or paternity leave, sickness leave and leave to deal with family emergencies.

What are the two types of absences?

The two main types of absences are authorised and unauthorised absences. Authorised absences tend to be pre-planned, such as annual leave, although genuine sick leave will also be classed as authorised. Unauthorised absences include bogus sick leave and lateness.

Last updated: 29 December 2022

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