How much sickness absence is acceptable?
While absence through either illness or injury is to be expected when running a business, it can quickly become costly and inconvenient when an employee is off sick frequently or for a long period.
If an employee is repeatedly absent or has a long-term condition that means they are no longer able to do their job, or do their role to the required standard, you may be considering issuing a written warning or even bringing their employment to an end. This is because there is only a limited amount of time that any business can survive, or function effectively, with staff on sick leave.
However, in answer to the question: “How many sick days before disciplinary?” — there is no right or wrong response. It will depend on the circumstances involved.
When it comes to short-term absences, there is no legal upper limit to the number of sick days employees can take, where you are free to set your own threshold for what you would class as excessive over a set period. You could determine an admissible amount of absence based on the national average of sick days per year in the UK, around 6-7 days or, alternatively, base it on the average in your industry sector.
In cases of prolonged sickness absence, there is no maximum period that an employee can be signed off work sick, as much will depend on the nature of their illness or injury and the prognosis for their recovery. Equally, there is no minimum period that an employer should wait before instigating capability proceedings. Again, this will depend on whether the employee is likely to fully recover and, if so, the potential timeframe involved, as well as the resources available to the employer to keep the employee’s job open for them.
In many businesses, an employee will be classed as on long-term sick leave after 4 weeks. It is typically at this point that an absence review meeting will be held to assess the employee’s long-term prognosis, after which a capability procedure may be triggered. However, there should usually be a few absence review meetings before instigating formal capability proceedings with a view to terminating the employee’s contract of employment.
However, to justify a decision to dismiss an employee for too many sick days, you would not only need to show that you had followed a full and fair procedure — for example, by providing a series of formal warning about attendance levels and the risk of dismissal in the case of persistent short-term absences — but that the dismissal was reasonable in the circumstances.
In a number of sick leave cases, an employee may be suffering from a long-term physical or mental impairment amounting to a ‘disability’ within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010. By dismissing a disabled employee, this could amount to both automatically unfair dismissal and disability discrimination, for which there is no qualifying service requirement.
You must first consider every step that can reasonably be taken to support the employee in the workplace, ideally in consultation with the employee and any health professionals, otherwise risk your chances, and reputation, before the tribunal.
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