UK: Are you Stressed by Your Absence Management Policy?

Last Updated: 23 August 2005
Article by Eliza Nash

The problems created by sickness absence continue to cause headaches for employers. The CBI and Axa's annual survey on absence and labour turnover, this year reported a slight drop in average absence per employee from 7.2 to 6.8 days, however, there was an increase in the overall cost from £11.6 billion in 2003, to £12.2 billion last year. The problem has certainly had its share of public airing in the press, however, recommended solutions are less in evidence.

There are many reasons why we might have expected the sickness rate to have fallen in recent years. A host of new laws, emanating largely from Europe, provide employees with increased opportunities for legitimate absences. All workers now have an entitlement to a minimum period of paid holiday each year. Maternity leave has increased, paternity leave introduced, as well as the right to take unpaid emergency leave where necessary to care for dependants. In addition, employees with young children have the right to request flexible working. The latest figures show that this is a right which has increasingly been taken up, with the vast majority of requests accepted by employers. Allowing employees to adapt their working hours to look after children, to take time off to deal with emergencies, and quite simply, providing proper holiday leave, would seem to remove some of the causes of employees taking "sickies". Nonetheless, the problem of absence remains. So what should employers be doing?

Novel Initiatives

Some employers have adopted individual and quite novel approaches to deal with the issue. With 10,000 of its 170,000 staff off sick on any given day, the Royal Mail introduced an incentive base scheme, rewarding employees who did not take time off sick. Last summer they announced that any member of staff with a six month unblemished attendance record would be entered into a raffle with the chance of winning a Ford Focus car. The scheme was greeted with a healthy level of scepticism elsewhere. However, 6 months down the line, it was reported a success, with sickness absence falling by 1%. The Royal Mail are rerunning the scheme, although this time round, workers will need a full year without sickness to be eligible to win a car.

Underlying Policies

Although the prize winning raffle is what attracts the headlines, it is only one aspect of a much wider process being undertaken by the Royal Mail. This includes training for its managers, more use of online tools for reporting absence and more occupational health support. The truth is, that in all cases the management of sickness absence must be supported by appropriate policies and procedures. The following elements are essential for an effective sickness management policy:

  • Notification and reporting procedures – Policies should make clear to whom employees should report their absence and of the need to provide regular updates
  • Medical certificates – Make sure that certificates are supplied to cover the whole of the relevant period and chase up any reports
  • Document trail – Keep written records of all material events throughout the sick leave. This will include recording details of all telephone calls to and from the employee, and discussions with medical advisers
  • Communication with the employee– Set up a system of regular calls to the employee to check on his or her progress
  • Communication within the business– The HR team and relevant managers should co-ordinate their approach and have regular discussions about the employee's absence. Both should have access to the same information
  • Return to work interviews.

Identifying the Cause

So where does all this leave us? For any policy to be successful and in order to create the right policies in the first place, requires an understanding of the causes of absence within the organisation. In essence, why are so many employees taking time off sick? Of course, reasons for absence will differ, however, if a common cause can be identified, this provides a starting point for addressing the problem. A survey report by the CIPD in 2004 found that stress was the second most common cause of absence for non manual employees, after minor illnesses. The problem does not appear to be limited to this country, with the most recently European survey finding that stress is the second most common work-related health problem across Europe.

According to the Health & Safety Executive, the cost to business of stress-related absence is estimated to be around £7 billion per year. However, the true cost is likely to extend beyond this. All employers have a duty to take reasonable health and safety of their employees and provide a safe system of work. If employees can show a breach of that duty, for example an excessive burden of work, if it was reasonably foreseeable that such a breach would result in injury to their mental health, they would be able to claim damages against their employer. Such damages can run to significant sums, especially where the employee had been so severely affected that they are unable to work again. Furthermore, stress is often linked to poor management and workplace bullying. In these circumstances, employees may have a discrimination claim if the bullying is found to be based on a prohibited ground (for example race). The compensation for such claims is uncapped. Even if no discrimination is present, if the bullying is more than a one off incident, an employee may have a claim under the Protection of Harassment Act.

Employers should pay particular attention when employees are on long term sick leave. What is referred to as "stress" may amount to a disability for the purposes of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). In these circumstances, employers have a responsibility to consider making reasonable adjustments for the disabled person's working environment. This could include a phased return to work, returning to a flexible arrangement or to a different role.

If stress is such a major and potentially costly problem, it is clearly one that needs to be tackled, to improve the health both of staff and of the company's finances.

What should employers be doing?

All employers should audit the true cost of stress to their business. This will include the cost of cover for employees, the cost of private healthcare and the cost of rehabilitating employees back to work. Health insurance policies do not always cover stress-related conditions and these need to be checked. Employers may also be under-insured for the risk of claims by employees. By undertaking this exercise, employers will gain an appreciation of the significance of the problem to their business.

High levels of pressure, along with organisational change and upheaval are common features of today's working environment. Part of any initiative to tackle workplace stress should include looking at the ways work is structured in the organisation, how resources are deployed and the expectations placed on staff. A CIPD survey found that the most commonly listed causes of stress at work were workloads, management style/relationships at work and organisational change/restructuring.

Last year the HSE introduced its management standards for stress, covering six key areas or "stress factors". Guidelines set out what employers' responsibilities are and what steps can be taken to reduce stress. These should be considered as part of any programme in tackling stress. Further assistance is provided in the booklet on work-related stress published by the DTI in July this year. The guidance aims to offer a practical approach to prevent and manage stress in the workplace. The fact that this guidance has been produced is evidence of the extent of the problem and the seriousness with which it is being treated by UK Government. It also means that employers who ignore the advice do so at their peril and will find it far harder to defend stress-related claims.

Employers should train line managers to identify early signs of stress and need to seriously consider managers’ responsibility to carry out stress audits.

Employers also need to take a fresh look at the building blocks they have in place in terms of their policies and procedures. These may need to be revised to ensure that they are adequate to cope with stress-related absences. Sickness policies should require medical reports and the contractual ability to refer the employee to a company doctor or occupational health adviser should be linked to any policies. In the case of long term absences, medical advice is very important, not least to ensure that the company complies with its obligations under the DDA. It also means ensuring that there are appropriate grievance procedures, discrimination and bullying/harassment policies in place. Offering a confidential counselling service to employees is something for larger organisations to consider and the case law shows that this may assist in the defending of claims.


For employers to get their houses in order regarding absence management, will involve some cost in terms of management time, as well as the legal costs associated with updating policies. However, it is likely that the ultimate saving, in terms of reducing the problem and minimising the risk of stress-related claims, will far outweigh these costs.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions