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Absence Management Best Practice

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.

There are many reasons employees may need time off work – anything from short-term illness to longer-term health conditions. 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.

According to the CBI, employers believe that 15 per cent of absence is not genuine. Another report from the CIPD stated around a third of employers believed that over 20 per cent of absences were not genuine.

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.


Identifying the causes of absence

There are many reasons employees take time off work, for example:

  • Short- or long-term illness
  • Authorised absences including: annual leave, maternity, paternity, adoption, or other paternal leave, time off for trade union or public duties, to care for dependants, compassionate leave, or education leave
  • Unauthorised absence or persistent lateness


In 2021, a Health and Wellbeing at work survey by the CIPD found the principal causes of short-term sickness absence included:

  • Minor illnesses (including colds/flu, stomach upsets, headaches, and migraines)
  • General injuries such as sprains, or back pain (acute and chronic)
  • COVID-19
  • Stress
  • Mental ill health


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.


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. 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.

Last updated: 28 June 2021

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