26 August, 2011
Pregnant and (now) always off sick
Page 27 

A problem with short-term sickness absence has been identified in your workplace But the culprit is expecting and claims all her time off has been "pregnancy-related". Must you accept this explanation at face value?

The average employee in the private sector takes 6.8 days sickness absence each year, usually in one or two-day blocks. So sickies are a major problem for many employers. But where do you stand if an employee who is pregnant claims that all her short-term absences are pregnancy-related? Must you accept her reasons without question, or is there anything you can do about it?

In this situation, even if you suspect that a pregnant employee is playing the system, you must tread carefully. Due to her condition, she has considerable legal protection, most notably under the Equality Act 2010. But this doesn't mean you are powerless to act; you just need to do things properly.

If this employee has minimal, or even no history of, sickness absence prior to her pregnancy, there is a strong chance that she is telling the truth (although it is plausible her condition is being used as a cover). A couple of things should set alarm bells ringing.

Firstly, if she had absences prior to her pregnancy that were attributed to vague symptoms for example, stomach upsets, headaches, or "24-hour things" and these ailments have suddenly disappeared, something is probably amiss. Also, look for any unusual patterns for example, clusters of sickness absence around weekends or bank holidays. If you spot either, you need to speak to her.

Return-to-work interviews

The easiest and certainly from your point of view the safest way to do this is at a return-to-work interview following her next period of sickness absence. Although this might seem like you are delaying, or ignoring, the problem, you are actually protecting yourself.

If you single her out for a chat about her sickness absence record beforehand, she could accuse you of sex, or pregnancy-related, discrimination because of her condition that is, you are not taking similar action against other employees who aren't pregnant.

At the return-to-work interview, apart from seeking an explanation about any unusual absence patterns, ask if she has been to see her GP. The fact that she is attributed all her post-pregnancy absences to her condition, suggests that there is an underlying medical problem. As her employer, you have a duty of care towards her health, safety and wellbeing and need to understand the implications if there is a problem. If she hasn't seen her GP, you can reasonably ask why.

You have the right to request medical evidence from a GP following any period of sickness absence; this tactic often focuses minds and prevents further absences. Do bear in mind, however, that GPs can levy a charge for providing a report if the absence lasted less than seven days.

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