According to the CBI, absen-teeism cost the UK economy more than £13 billion last year, although the number of days lost fell by four million to 164 million. The CBI commented that its study suggests that a "culture of absenteeism" still exists in too many workplaces, with around 13% of days lost considered to be non-genuine. A recent HSE survey found the average number of days’ absence per employee in "small" businesses is four, compared with seven days in "large" businesses, employing 250+.

The debate as to whether the CBI has exaggerated or underestimated the issue of workplace malingerers will, no doubt, grind away, but the simple truth is that most businesses in the baking and allied industries would see their performance improve, perhaps dramatically, were they to take a strategic approach to reducing sick days.

However, a strategic approach should be balanced. Treating every employee as a malingerer is not justified and would be counter-productive. Measures that reward staff for not taking sick days exist, but tend to be a blunt instrument and could be said to penalise the genuinely ill. In order to tackle and reduce sick days, there really is no substitute for an effective manager coupled with two or three clear and well-publicised policies.

An effective manager is someone who directs and controls the work and staff of a business. So their involvement in reducing staff absence is crucial. Unfortunately, businesses are frequently held back because managers either lack the confidence to manage their staff effectively, and shy away from doing so, or have more enthusiasm than knowledge or experience and make expensive mistakes.

To be effective, every manager should be equipped with the basic information they need to manage their staff, while avoiding the pitfalls that will expose their employer to a claim and a compensation award. Training need not be expensive or time-consuming.

The basic principles are:

1. In the case of long-term absence, establish the medical position by obtaining as much relevant information as is reasonably possible or investigate whether there are patterns of absence where an employee is persistently absent for short periods.

2. Keep in regular contact with the employee and give him or her a fair opportunity to explain their persistent absences.

3. Apply your procedures - in particular the compulsory disciplinary, dismissal and grievance procedures - where necessary.

4. Having exhausted all other possibilities, consider alternatives to dismissal where dismissal is contemplated.

5. Consider whether the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 applies.

Key policies and strategies to assist an effective manager are:

? having and enforcing a procedure for employees to use when they report in sick

? recording levels of absenteeism in the business year-on-year and setting ambitious but achievable targets for managers to reduce the average

? requiring every returning employee to attend a return-to-work interview

? providing managers with regular information to identify any pattern of persistent absences - for example, at the end of a holiday.

Ray Silverstein is partner, head of London employment team, at Browne Jacobson LLP