Types of Absence

Absence can be for many reasons:

  1. Pre-authorised, for example holiday, training or for medical appointments.
  2. Sick absence: Short or long term
  3. Absence to cover for domestic or personal problems (sometimes sick absence is misused for this)
  4. Unauthorised absence

Annual absence costs the UK economy billions of pounds.

Authorised absence, including the management of sick absence, should be dealt with under clear company rules so that treatment of employees is transparent, consistent and thus seen to be fair. Failure to implement fair procedures impacts on employee relations, productivity, labour turnover and if not addressed can create a culture of high absenteeism with all the commensurate costs.

Employees’ have a legal right to some absences (not all paid) for example antenatal appointments, unforeseen domestic problems and undertaking public duties. For more information see our guidance in the handbook.

The Legal Risks

Badly managed absence investigations can result in claims for:

  1. Breach of contract
  2. Unfair dismissal /constructive unfair dismissal
  3. Discrimination particularly those related to disability.For more information go to                              Link to managers guidance
  4. Breach of the Data Protection Act

These could be very expensive for the employer, particularly discrimination claims as there is no ceiling on these claims.

Authorised Absence

This is absence to which management have agreed. However, the absence should still be recorded in case it is needed for future reference.

Sick Absence

Sick absence which is covered by a self-certificate or a fit note from a doctor should be treated as authorised absence. An employer is not legally obliged to pay an employee’s full pay but they must pay them Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) if they meet the qualifying criteria. However, the statement of Terms and Conditions or Contract may provide for the payment of full pay in certain circumstances and if there is a contractual right to full pay then the employer must honour this contractual obligation.

There can be cross over between SSP, Maternity/Paternity/Adoption pay and annual leave. For an explanation of the circumstances applicable in these cases see  absence policy and our handbook.

It should be remembered that most sickness is genuine and unauthorised absence may be caused by family commitments or stress. However, no matter how genuine the reason for the absence it may still be creating problems for the organisation in terms of costs, lost productivity and the additional burden on other staff. The unexpected nature of these absences makes them difficult to manage and managers are often unsure how to proceed, particularly when they suspect that the absence may not be genuine.


Many problems can arise in dealing with sick absence.

  • How can I tell if someone is genuinely sick or if they just didn’t feel like coming to work?
  • Can I dismiss someone when they are away sick?
  • How do I talk to my employees about why they were away?
  • What action can I take to improve the attendance of my employees?
  • Avoiding disability discrimination; how do I know if an employee is disabled?
  • What does that mean in terms of what I can do?
  • What can I do if they are disabled but they don’t improve?
  • What happens if they won’t or can’t attend meetings?
  • What can I do if they won’t cooperate with medical reports?
  • Dealing with claims of management bullying
  • Avoiding Data Protection Act issues
    • Who needs to know
    • What records should be kept
    • Who has access to them
  • How do I deal with it if they go off sick with stress?

Sick absences can be short term and intermittent or long term for a serious illness. They raise different problems for the organisation and need to be managed appropriately.

High sick absence levels are often an indicator of other problems and should be taken as a warning sign and investigated. The absences may be related to the quality of management, working relationships, bullying, harassment, job design, employment relations, communication of information and flexible working arrangements.

Sick Absence Policy

It is important to manage sick absence carefully to reduce the costs and risks to the business. It is vital to have written procedures to ensure fairness in dealing with employees and to defend any subsequent dismissal.

Time Off For Dependants

This applies only to employees who have the right to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work for urgent family reasons. This is usually 1-2 days whilst they make arrangements. The employee must notify the employer of his or her absence and the reason for it as soon as is reasonably practicable and inform the employer of how long he or she expects to be off work.

A dependant is a:

  • spouse
  • partner or civil partner
  • parent
  • child
  • person who lives in the same household as the employee but who is not his or her lodger, employee or boarder.

A dependant, therefore, does not have to be related to the employee and may also be a person who reasonably relies on the employee for assistance. This definition of a dependant may apply, where, for example, an employee cares for a neighbour and where this person unexpectedly falls ill or is injured or assaulted. Examples of circumstances where time off may apply are where:

  • dependant is suddenly taken ill, or has been assaulted or injured
  • a dependant gives birth
  • a dependant dies
  • existing arrangements for the care of a dependant are unexpectedly disrupted or come to an end, eg an employee’s childminder calls in sick
  • the employee’s child is involved in an incident at school.

Unauthorised Absence

This absence which management have not agreed to and may be a breach of contract and the employer may then withhold pay for the absent days and even dismiss in serious cases. However, it is important that an employer attempts to contact the employee and hear their explanation before dismissing on these grounds.

Read More »

HR Adviser Premium Content

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Let us use our 30 years experience to help you

Please fill out the form and we will get back to you shortly.