How to deal with absenteeism in the workplace

Absenteeism in the workplace has recently attracted a great deal of media attention. Rishi Sunak has even launched an attack on the “sick note culture” in the UK and plans to delegate the issue of fit notes to specialist professionals. So how big a problem has absenteeism in the workplace become?

Up until 2020, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that absenteeism in the workplace due to sickness had been on a downward trend for over two decades. Indeed, 2020 witnessed the lowest recorded level of 3.6 days.

Absenteeism in the workplace

How times have changed. The latest data from the Health Foundation and the ONS paints a very different and worrying picture.

  • The number of sick people out of work is rising
  • The number of people in work suffering from ill-health (which limits what they can do) is increasing
  • More than 2.6 million working age people are out of the labour market due to long-term sickness
  • Nearly 20% of the UK’s working age population has a ‘work-limiting’ condition
  • Around 8 million working age people live with a long-term health condition (for over half of these their health limits and restricts the work they can undertake)

The impact of COVID

Following the pandemic, 470,000 more people are out of the workforce on ill-health grounds. That is a very sobering statistic. The long-term effects of lock-down are also being felt. Among the young workforce, the number of people suffering from mental ill health has increased markedly.

In February 2024, the Resolution Foundation reported that young people were now more likely to experience a mental health problem than any other age group. Two decades ago, young people were the sector least likely to have mental health problems. The Resolution Foundation found that in 18-24 year-olds, more than a third were reporting symptoms of mental illness. 

The causes of absenteeism at work

Workers can obviously be absent for a whole host of reasons. Yes, coughs, colds and back pain are usually among the most popular reasons cited for absenteeism, but long term conditions such as diabetes and depression are commonplace. Across the workforce, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal conditions remain the most common form of work-limiting health condition.

How to deal with absenteeism at work

Before the days of COVID, the main reasons for sickness absence changed little from 2010 – 2020. In 2020 the 4 main reasons were;

  1. Minor illnesses (e.g. coughs & colds) 26.1%
  2. Other conditions (includes diabetes, coronavirus & accidents) 17.1%
  3. Musculoskeletal problems (e.g. back and neck pain) 15.4%
  4. Mental health 11.6%

(Data from the Office for National Statistics)

How to deal with absenteeism in the workplace

With projections from the Health Foundation’s REAL centre that half a million more working-age people will be living with a major illness in the next 6 years, how can you effectively deal with absenteeism in the workplace?

6 Top tips to reduce absenteeism in the workplace

  1. Have a robust Absence Management Policy in place. This can be an invaluable guide for staff. It will help with consistency in dealing with employees with high absence and enable the necessary action to be taken. How can you determine what high absence is if you don’t have trigger points? How can you address the situation if you don’t have a clear process? If you don’t have a policy and need help putting one together, please get in touch
  2. Return to work meetings are so important. Not only do they safeguard the business in regard to making sure the employee is fit to return to work, but they also give the manager the opportunity to discuss the employee’s absence levels. By keeping detailed records of these meetings, you may notice certain patterns emerging. These meetings can act as a deterrent by demonstrating to employees that you are monitoring their absence and taking it seriously
  3. Accommodating and putting in place flexible working patterns and remote working has been shown to reduce absence levels.  Having a good work life balance is important for your teams’ health and wellbeing
  4. Make sure your team take annual leave and lunch breaks and ban unnecessary overtime. By taking these steps you are helping to ensure that employees don’t feel overworked and stressed. Tired, stressed employees are likely to increase absenteeism in your business
  5. Tackle absenteeism. If an employee’s absence is high, then follow your Absence Management Policy and address the situation. In most cases, you will find that the employees’ absence levels dramatically improve. By managing the situation you are being fair and consistent to everyone in the business
  6. Make adjustments. If you have an employee who has an underlying medical condition, then a referral to Occupational Health to understand what adjustments can be put in place can be really helpful. If the employee is protected under the Equality Act, then you have a responsibility to put adjustments in place to support them in the workplace.  These adjustments may contribute to an improvement in the employee’s absence level

If you need any further help or support in how to deal with absenteeism in the workplace, please get in touch for your free half an hour consultation.

Other free guides;

How to look after workers with Long Covid

Advice on flexible working

Advice on preventing age discrimination at work

How to deal with difficult staff

How to retain staff