Sickness absence costs the UK economy an estimated £17bn each year. While the majority of sick days will be genuine, and your unfortunate employee will be tucked up in bed with a fever, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which conducts annual research on absenteeism, found that staff “sickies” are still an issue for employers – around 15% of sick days are faked, costing UK businesses around £2.5bn a year.

The average level for private sector employees’ sick leave is 5.8 days a year (compared to 8.3 days for public sector staff) with UK workers taking a collective 180 million sick days in 2009. It is an absence unlikely to make the heart grow fonder.

While most absence is down to sickness and is genuine, some companies tackle the issue more proficiently than others. It depends on the whole company’s determination to tackle it, and it shouldn’t just be the line manager’s job to support employees.

Monitoring absenteeism

When it comes to drawing up a policy for tackling absence, there are a number of things you need to take into consideration. In many ways, the policy is going to be ineffective if you don’t have any record of the hows and whys of absence in your company. Monitoring the causes and prevalence of absenteeism is the first step to identifying the scale of the problem and managing the impact.

A common method of recording absence is to have employees complete a leave form, which can account for any holiday taken. This can also let them give you the reason for their absence in the case of sick leave.

There are also more direct techniques you can employ. One of the most effective is the return to work interview. This isn’t an interrogation but rather an opportunity to work together to find a solution to any problems there might be. While this approach may seem confrontational, it is preferable to instigating disciplinary procedures and can even help to avoid this by enabling you to understand the employee’s situation and identify ways to help in the future.

Tackling staff absence

It is an unfortunate fact of life that not all reasons given for absence will be genuine, and in these situations you may have to adopt a tougher stance. Some organisations, noting that staff absence levels rose on Fridays and Mondays, chose to include the weekend in the allocated number of ‘sick days’, so that while only two working days may have been lost, four were added to the employee’s tally. Such methods may sound harsh, but they also help prevent unnecessary absence.

However, there are other situations where absence can be granted, such as emergencies where employees have to attend to sick children, parents or other immediate family members.

The fit note

If an employee is off sick regularly (or for longer than seven calendar days) you can ask for a doctor’s note. In April 2010, the traditional sick note was replaced by the “fit note”, which focuses on what the employee is able to do and states whether they may be fit for work with some support and flexibility on your part.

For instance, if your employee is unable to make it into the workplace or perform all of their usual duties, they may be able to work from home or part-time until they have fully recovered. According to the CBI’s research, more than 75% of employers believe the fit note helps get people back to work.

The note may state that the employee is not fit for work for a specified period of time. If this time passes and there is no obvious improvement in absence levels, then you can ask for them to see an independent doctor of your choice, and then work from his/her report. If necessary, disciplinary procedures can then start.