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How to Manage Absence

According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2021 UK businesses lost an estimated 149.3 million working days to sickness or injury, equivalent to 4.6 days per worker.

Think about how much you pay your staff and what it costs you in additional labour and lost productivity when they are absent from work. It soon adds up.

Now, we're not saying that your staff should never have time off for sickness or injury, that's not realistic when we employ human beings! But there are things you can do from a management perspective to control the impact absences have on your business.

Return to work forms

I know, paperwork is just another thing on your to do list, but hear me out.

If you conduct a quick return to work interview (and record it) with every employee after any period of sickness absence, you will quickly build a picture of their absence record in terms of the time they have had off over the year, the reasons for their absence and any patterns of note. If you can see that you have five return to work forms on file for an employee and you're about to do another one, it's probably time to have a chat with them.

Plus, you have the added benefits that it will prompt you to check employees are fit to return to work before actually starting the day job and you can effectively support the employee in getting back to work so that they don't need to take further time off.

Absence Triggers

Part of managing absence is being consistent. That doesn't mean that you only tell people off for being sick on a Friday! It means you set a standard that you decide is acceptable, and if staff absence exceeds that standard, that's your trigger point to do something about it.

There are a few ways you can do this:

Instances: You can focus on the instances of absence such as: 3 instances of absence in a rolling 12 month period.

This is a nice easy one because it's clear to everyone what the trigger point is.

Days: You can focus on the total days of sickness such as: 30 days of sickness in a rolling 12 month period

This is perfectly doable, but just bear in mind that this will naturally target people who have longer periods of sickness. Typically, short term sickness (less than 4 weeks) is more disruptive to business than a longer, potentially planned sickness. You should also be aware that employees with disabilities are more likely to have increased sickness levels and therefore might be at a disadvantage if this method is used.

Bradford Score: A calculation to help you target frequent short term sickness

The Bradford Score is calculated as follows: Instances of sickness (I) x Days of sickness (D) x Days of sickness (D). For example:


Instances of Sickness

Days Sickness







Linda has had 1 period of 10 days off due to having COVID-19.

Linda's Bradford Score is: 1 x 10 x 10 = 100

Dave had had 5 periods of 2 days off at a time for various reasons.

Dave's Bradford Score is: 5 x 10 x 10 = 500

What you set your trigger to is up to you. Just make sure it's reasonably achievable for the average person.

Absence Management Meetings

Once you have set your trigger and you identify through your return to work interview that an employee has reached a trigger, it's time to put your manager hat on.

Absence management meetings are not about accusing the employee of lying about how sick they were or trying to catch them out. During the meetings, you want to understand if there are any underlying conditions we need to make adjustments for and to highlight to the employee that their absence levels are not acceptable. The whole purpose is to reduce the employee's absence levels.

You can give warnings and even dismiss employees for high absence levels, but you should always speak to your HR Warrior Princess before doing so and be very mindful of equality legislation.

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