Although sickness absence rates have fallen in recent years, the average employee in the private sector still has 6.4 days off work each year due to "illness". Further research shows that, at any one time, 3% of the entire working population is away from work because of it. So it remains a major headache for employers.

Of course, tackling sickness absence, regardless of whether it is short- or long-term, can also be a problem. This isn’t helped by a myth which circulates among employees; some think that you have no right to contact them when they are off sick. But this is not so. Not only is it perfectly acceptable for you to remain in touch with an employee during any period of sickness absence, it is considered "good management practice" to do so. This means you can ask them for regular updates on their health and a likely return-to-work date for example, via a daily or weekly phone call or by meeting with them.

An invasion of privacy?

Some employees are sceptical of this approach; they feel it is a breach of their privacy. But the bottom line is that careful management demonstrates you are a reasonable and supportive employer, which takes its duty of care towards employees seriously. Note that this will come in handy should you face a discrimination claim at tribunal. And keeping a close eye on things will also help to unearth any fraudulent sickness absence.

Outline the management approach you will take in a robust sickness absence policy. It should state that all employees are expected to attend a return-to-work interview following any period of sickness absence. Also, reserve the right to request a home visit where any illness or condition is "long-term"; this is usually deemed to be five or more days’ absence.

If you want to visit an employee at home, don’t turn up unannounced or outside reasonable hours. This could be viewed negatively by the tribunal for example, that you are trying to harass or catch them out.

lSo always drop them a line first, suggesting a date and time, and explain the purpose of the meeting in other words to see:

1. How they are;

2. If there is anything you can do to get them back to work sooner; and

3. If an occupational health referral is needed.

An employee may feel uncomfortable with a home visit and you can meet on neutral territory. But remember that discussing health-related matters in a public place could breach their privacy, so do point this out.

If an employee refuses a home visit, you cannot demand one. But if their sickness absence becomes a capability issue and you are considering dismissal, any reluctance to discuss their health will go in your favour.

l For a free sample of ’Sickness Absence Policy’, call 01920 468061.