Wouldn't it be nice to never have anyone off sick?

Even if your company is full of perfectly toned athletes who spend their days sipping fruit smoothies and doing squats around the office, it's probably not going to happen. Seasonal flu, colds, covid-19, mental health issues, food poisoning, hormonal complications... nobody's immune to the inevitabilities of illness. It just happens.

But sometimes, you’ll encounter someone who’s off work a lot. More than everyone else.

And it can be a tricky situation to deal with.

So below we’ll go through some practical advice on how to manage an employee who is always sick, helping you support their wellbeing while maintaining the smooth operation of your business. We’ll explore the factors that can contribute to frequent absenteeism, and look at how you can address these issues in a fair and empathetic way.

Here's what you need to know about managing a frequently sick employee. Firstly – why does it happen?

Why might someone call off sick more than usual?

Yes, it can be frustrating when they call in sick again. Especially if you suspect they’re pulling a sickie and taking advantage of your company's generous sick leave policy. And if you’re a small business owner, a single person taking a short-term absence can cause chaos in your day-to-day operations.

But you’ve got to approach the situation with caution and empathy. Try to find out what’s going on before you take action.

There could be a good reason behind their actions, such as stress, personal issues, or workplace conflicts causing them to stay away. It's your job as an HR manager or leader to dig a little deeper and understand what's going on, so you can address the issue in the most effective way possible.

There could be a genuine medical condition at play, which might require a bit more investigation and support from a healthcare professional. Don’t jump to conclusions right away – after all, everyone's health is different, and you don't want to make assumptions that could cause trouble down the line.

How to handle an employee taking too many sick days

1) Make sure they're getting paid properly

Firstly, some admin.

Being off sick is bad enough without having to worry about money. Those on short-term contracts or doing shift work might be vulnerable to disruptions in payroll when sick pay is involved, so talk to your HR or accounts representative to confirm the situation.

Whatever your company policy is, employees in the UK are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay, which employers must pay directly to them for up to 28 weeks.

The employee has to be eligible for paid time off, which depends on criteria including their length of service and hours worked per week. They’re still eligible even if they don’t work full-time – you can find out more in our guide to sick pay for full-time and part-time employees.

2) Clarify whether they should be working or not

In most cases, a sick employee should be doing nothing with their absence other than resting and recovering. Sometimes, the lines are a bit blurred. What if your employee calls in to say they hurt their foot and can't come to the office, but can work from home?

The answer depends on a few things, including whether it's a short or long term illness, and whether they've self-certified or got a doctor's note. We've got a short guide to the situations where employees can and can't work while on sick leave.

3) Make sure they're supported

There's only so much you can do, but the most important thing is to let your sick employee know that you care for their welfare and will support them as much as you can.

A quick phone call from a line manager to check in and confirm things can make all the difference.

You might end up researching their condition first if you don't know much about it, or just letting them know you'll be there if they need anything.

For long-term illnesses that require regular treatment, you'll have to be patient and empathetic if they require time off to visit the hospital or physio.

Occupational health checks are important for team members who's condition is affected by their environment. If they've got musculoskeletal problems (like a bad back), providing ergonomic chairs and desks will be super important for their comfort and ongoing health when they come back to work.

Regular communication is really important, whether the illness is short-term or long-term.

4) Work with them to find solutions

When you speak with your frequently-absent employee in their return to work interview, it’s a good chance to figure out what’s really going on. Yes, it could be a persistent health condition that you’ll have to work around by planning for more sick time off.

But they could instead be struggling to care for a sick family member. They might have childcare issues, a chaotic personal life, or symptoms of burnout. You won’t really know until you talk to them. And if it’s signalling a problem in the office, it’s time to have a look at their environment, responsibilities and workloads.

There’s always the opportunity to grant them some life leave – a day or two for sorting out ‘life admin’ like moving house or taking a pet to the vet. If you plan it in advance, it should be a lot easier to work around – and given a full day or two to sort an issue out, your employee might be able to tackle the cause of their absenteeism once and for all. Whether it’s paid or unpaid leave, taking a bit of intentional time off can make all the difference.

5) Get it all documented

If you're making these decisions as you go along, you'd probably do well to get yourself an effective sickness absence policy. Getting it all documented will save you from headaches in the future, and will prevent squabbling and disagreements by clearly stating what's allowed and what isn't.

We can't state enough how relying on unspoken rules and an informal absence culture will lead to trouble. If, for example, one person thinks they've been treated differently even though they had a similar illness to someone else, you're going to have conflict. Or if someone thinks you don't need a doctor's note unless you're sick for seven days (when the rule is actually five), there's no way you can prove otherwise.

So having a clear, concise absence policy that everyone has access to is essential. We've put together some free absence policy templates you can use if you don't have one yet.

6) Take disciplinary action if it’s really necessary

You'll notice we've not recommended punitive forms of absence management, like the Bradford Factor. They're pretty mechanical, focusing on certain trigger points for punishment, and don't allow for empathetic, realistic people management.

But there might be a limit where your staff members are really taking the mick. It’s your call on where that line is. Just remember to make your decision consistent with your policies (and employment law, of course).

We think absence and sickness management should be aligned with your company's cultural values, which means systematically discouraging employee absences isn’t always the way to go.

Employees frequently off sick for mental health issues

When it comes to mental health, you'll have to take a tailored approach to each situation.

Mental health is affected by working conditions and life circumstances. To the best of your ability, you should try to support your employees and develop a company culture that champions wellbeing, open communication, honesty and integrity. You should take all incidences of bullying, harassment or incivility seriously before they become problems that affect your staff wellbeing (and also because it's the morally right thing to do).

And in specific cases of absence for mental health reasons, you need to treat them like you would any other illness.

Our short guide to managing mental health in the workplace outlines some strategies for addressing this topic. Often there's no easy answer, but simply recognising it as a valid reason for time off and not belittling people's struggles is the most important thing you can do.

Can you call someone when they're off sick?

You can phone an employee who's off sick, yes - there's no rules against it - but you need to ask yourself a few things. For example, are you checking on their welfare or asking for work-related help? Will your call impact their recovery in a negative way (eg. if they're stressed)? You need to have a pretty good reason to pick up the phone, so make sure that's the case beforehand.

See our post on the topic for more information, which includes a list of things you need to know before calling an employee who's off sick.

What if your employee is off sick but you see them out and about?

It's not illegal for employees to go for a walk when they're off sick - in fact, in some cases it might be beneficial. If they're off with a stomach bug, 10 minutes out walking in the fresh air won't do much harm - and as we know after going through multiple lockdowns, time outside is essential to stay physically healthy and mentally sane.

If you think someone is genuinely taking advantage of sick days, though, (like if they’re off with a broken leg and you see them jogging through the park) you might have reason to question things. Hopefully in this case you've asked them to send a medical certificate for something so serious.  

If it's something more minor, like a single ad hoc day-off where you bump into them at the shops on the release date of the new FIFA game with a copy in hand, it's up to you. It could depend on whether your sickness absence policy contains guidance on what they should and shouldn't be doing on a sick day.

If it was a misunderstanding, fine. But if they were genuinely bunking off, you're going to need to talk to them and address it directly, possibly deploying your disciplinary policy if you think it's necessary.

Some illnesses and ailments are invisible, though. You can't always make assumptions by observing someone, so before you make any accusations, think it through - might there be a reasonable explanation?

If they're off sick with something contagious like a virus, then they really shouldn't be out socialising at all. In the age of covid-19 everyone should be responsible enough to isolate themselves appropriately.

Finally, it's worth checking the dates to make sure they're not actually on annual leave - they might have been sick previously and then went on leave. We previously wrote about what happens when sick leave and annual leave overlap if you'd like more info on this scenario.