Hybrid working and sickness absence management: Practical tips for employers

Author: Stephen Simpson

Employers that are operating under a hybrid working model must ensure that their sickness absence management procedures sit comfortably alongside their new working arrangements. We set out five steps that hybrid working organisations can take to ensure that sickness absence management continues to be effective.

1. Encourage employees to take sick leave when genuinely ill

Podcast: Sickness absence management and hybrid working

We talk about how employers that are operating under a hybrid working model must ensure that their sickness absence management procedures work. We also present the findings of our latest sickness absence rates survey.

The mere fact of not being present in the workplace on certain days has changed many employees' attitude to sickness absence. There may be times when they are feeling too unwell to commute but feeling well enough to work at home.

This means that employers need to adapt their approach, reviewing their policies and setting some clear guidelines for hybrid workers. The most important message for employers to get across is that employees should not work unless they feel able to.

Line managers should be warned not encourage, or turn a blind eye to, staff carrying on working from home when they should be off sick.

This approach reduces the risk of burnout from employees if they are encouraged to believe that homeworking precludes taking sick leave.

2. Enforce sickness absence reporting

Line managers and employees should be reminded that the organisation's usual sickness absence reporting procedure still applies, even if they are sick on a day on which they would normally be working from home.

Absence rates and costs survey 2022

XpertHR's benchmarking service has the full data from all the questions from this survey, including absence figures according to organisation size, sector and region.

Our research finds that coronavirus continued to impact sickness absence rates in 2021, particularly in organisations where working from home is not an option.

A typical sickness absence reporting procedure involves employees being required to notify their line manager of their ill health as soon as reasonably practical, preferably before they are due to start work.

Some employers will accept notification via email, text or Teams message. However, many employers will require employees to speak directly to their line manager, who needs to handle the communication sensitively.

For example, some employees may not want to go on camera while they are ill at home and line managers need to respect their privacy.

If sickness absence continues beyond one day, the employer may require the employee to check in on each day of absence, or at least every couple of days after the first day of absence.

If the employee's absence becomes long term, which is often defined as 28 calendar days or more, it is good practice for the employer to adapt their approach, to avoid daily contact being perceived as intimidating by the employee.

The line manager could have a discussion with the employee to agree a regular pattern of contact, remembering that the timing and frequency should be sensitive to the employee's health needs.

3. Discourage workplace attendance when ill or infectious

The pandemic has changed how employers should think about risk when it comes to ill or potentially infectious staff attending the workplace. Employers should not expect employees to attend the workplace when they are clearly sick.

Discouraging employees to attend the workplace in these circumstances reduces the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak or the spread of other common illnesses, such as colds and flu.

A major benefit of operating a hybrid working model is that the employer has the option of agreeing with an employee who is mildly ill but who may still be infectious to work at home at short notice, if the nature of their work allows for this.

4. Consider enhancing sick pay

Statutory sick pay (SSP) is no longer automatically payable to someone who misses work purely on the basis that they have:

  • tested positive for coronavirus; or
  • been in close contact with a positive COVID-19 case.

Entitlement to SSP has reverted to being dependent on incapacity for work.

This causes a dilemma for employers as it creates a risk that staff could attend work while they are potentially infectious.

The Government recommends in its guidance on reducing the spread of respiratory infections in the workplace that employers "may wish to consider how best to support and enable their workforce to follow this guidance as far as possible". The guidance includes advice to individuals who may be infectious to "try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people" if they are symptomatic or have tested positive.

Enhancing sick pay to continue to pay staff in these circumstances can be a powerful tool for employers that wish to discourage potentially infectious employees from attending work.

Alongside enhanced sick pay, employers should also consider excluding COVID-related sickness absence from any absence management calculations that could ultimately trigger an attendance management review.

5. Be flexible with sickness absence evidential requirements

Employers can require employees to provide evidence of sickness after seven days' absence.

Model documents

Short-term sickness absence policy

Long-term sickness absence policy

Hybrid working policy

Before the pandemic, the employer may have had a strict requirement to provide a fit note, but may now have to be more flexible. For example, employees may experience increased difficulty in seeing a doctor for health issues.

If the employee is having genuine difficulty in getting a fit note, the employer can make an exception to its normal requirement for medical evidence from the employee's GP. The employer can continue to take all reasonable steps to verify the sickness absence, including requiring the employee to:

  • keep in regular contact with their line manager; and
  • explain what medical advice they have sought and followed.

Employees can also still get an isolation note from the NHS if they have COVID-19 and are voluntarily self-isolating. An isolation note should be treated as valid evidence too.