Absence is a fact of life for companies big and small. A 100% attendance record just isn’t achievable - people are always going to miss work.

Having a proper method for dealing with it, though, isn’t so common.

Making things up as you go, agreeing things verbally or being inconsistent with rules will all mess up your ability to manage absence. This can lead to confusion, dissatisfaction, and even more absence.

So to prevent these, you’ve got to have a proper absence policy. And putting one together is much simpler than you might think.

We’re talking simple policies on unplanned absences like sickness, and planned absences like annual leave. Whether you’re a scrappy start-up, or an established company of hundreds, you’ve got to have an official stance on what happens with days off.

Why you should have an absence policy

Having a modern, simple and fair absence policy is crucial.

Why? It makes sure everyone is on the same page, and prevents misunderstandings and he-said-she-said disagreements. When you’ve all got the same rulebook to refer to, everyone knows where they stand.

Having a proper policy also helps you prevent unnecessary absence in the first place.

When folks are treated fairly and are supported by their company, they’ll be less stressed and less likely to suffer from illness. They’ll feel more loyalty and responsibility to their colleagues, and they’ll be less likely to dread coming in to work.

Absence policies are a good method for reflecting and promoting your company culture. They’re a distilled version of your ethos; you can really tell what a company’s values are based on how they approach employee absence. They’re an opportunity to ask questions like:

  • How do you approach work-life balance?
  • What’s your opinion of people who are absent a lot?
  • How do you support people to be healthier and stay off work less?

By addressing these concerns now you’ll be able to set a unified cultural tone for absence management.

Why people are absent from work

First, you have to understand all the different types of leave. It’s not just sickness and holiday leave that’ll keep someone out of the office.

Here’s a list of some reasons people might miss work (which you can see in more detail at our common causes of absenteeism page):

You won’t be able to plan for every one of the possible reasons, but 'expecting the unexpected’ and being clear on your overall response will really help you out when these things occur.

What does an absence policy include?

Your absence policy will be noted in a document that’s accessible to every employee.

It should be simple and easily readable. That means no 30-page documents with endless clauses and appendices - or else readers will tune out before they’ve reached the end.

We’ve prepared an absence policy template you can freely download and use for yourself. We’d recommend customising it to your own culture; that means using language you’d normally use. (If you’re not usually professional and corporate, don’t feel obliged to make your policy that way. It’ll be more readable if it’s in your normal tone of voice.)

You can use it as a starting point which should get you thinking about what works for your company. Rather than write it all in one go, why not make it a collaborative effort? You could use Google Docs or Notion to write it together and make suggestions as you go.

Ready to make a really good absence policy? Here’s what you need to include.

What to do when employees are too ill to work

This means information on who to contact, and when. Remember that if sensitive medical conditions are involved, workers might not want to discuss them with whoever answers the phone, so you should always be prepared to hand over to a trusted point of contact if they ask.

Sick pay

How much employees will receive, and for how long. If you’re only providing SSP (Statutory Sick Pay), explain what it is, and how much. That said, do you think anyone can reasonably survive on £94.25 per week? Companies that want their employees to thrive will provide full pay for a number of months of sickness.

How the company supports employees who are sick

This includes sick pay but also access to benefits like health practitioners, and how often you’ll check in with them. It’s worth noting that they won’t be forgotten, and if they need any ad hoc support (eg. a food delivery if they’re stuck home) that you’ll be happy to arrange help.

Parental leave

Parental leave policies are something you need to give a lot of thought to, and might benefit from being in a separate document. To start, have a look at our guides to paternity leave (including why you should encourage fathers to take paternity leave), maternity leave and additional maternity leave, and adoption leave.

It’s up to you to provide more than the statutory minimum amounts - consider how countries around the world approach maternity and paternity leave for some inspiration.

Other leave types

This includes compassionate leave, life leave, unsick days or duvet days. Include clear explanations of what each type is and when it should be used.

Annual leave

This is a big one. State what the standard annual leave allowance per year is for employees, and how much over the legal minimum you offer (you do offer more than the minimum, don't you?)

Include guidance on when they should use it (eg. do you recommend using half of it by the end of June?), and how much they’re allowed to carry over to the next year.

This is also a good opportunity to explain your philosophy of annual leave, and remind people of just how important it is to take proper time off.