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Absence management guide for small business

Staff absence is a reality for every workplace. However, there are ways to anticipate and manage absence to lessen its impact. Learn all about managing absences effectively with this staff absence management guide for small businesses, edited by an employment lawyer.


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What is absence management?

Absence management refers to the strategies and policies organisations use to manage and reduce absence within their workforce. It is a core concern for employers, managers, and HR professionals in terms of the organisation running smoothly and profitably.

When it comes to absence, each employer needs to balance the needs of the business with the needs of the employee. Ultimately, employees who are frequently ill can be fairly dismissed, even if their illness is genuine, as employers are entitled to employee people who are capable of doing the job they are employed to do.

Types of absence
  • Planned absences are agreed in advance between the staff member and their employer. Examples include holiday entitlement, maternity/paternity leave, adoption leave, medical and dental appointments, and court witness or jury duty.

  • Unplanned absences, on the other hand, may include sickness absence, bereavement or compassionate leave, lateness (for example from travel disruption), or an employee simply not showing up for work without a good reason. These absences can have a significant impact on the productivity of the business, as of course it’s difficult to plan for them.

Sickness absence

In terms of HR management and business planning, sickness absence can be the most difficult to manage effectively. This is because staff sickness is usually unplanned and can be hard to predict.

It’s also complicated because sickness in itself is highly complex and wide in scope, including anything from a broken leg to ongoing mental health issues. Employers often don’t have the relevant experience or expertise to deal with complex health matters.

Types of sickness absence

How you manage sickness absence largely depends on which type of absence it constitutes; short term/intermittent and long-term sickness absences usually require different management processes.

Short term sickness absence

A short term absence generally lasts for less than seven calendar days. When an employee is off sick in the short term, it's important to find out the reason why and get an estimate for when they will return. The employee can self-certify when back at work without the need for a fit note from the doctor.

Long term sickness absence

If an employee is off sick for over seven days, they need to get a Statement of Fitness for Work (i.e. fit note) from their doctor. Within this note, a GP can give employers and employees advice on how to get the employee back to work or how the employee can work despite the sickness.

The note will state that the employee is either not fit for work, fit for work, or may be fit for work. If the employee may be fit for work, the note will suggest how reasonable adjustments can help the employee get back into the workplace.

Learn more: How to manage long-term absence

Sickness absence and disability

Absence related to disability must be treated carefully and sensitively. Disability is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act (2010). This means that when an absence is connected to an employee's disability, they may make a claim of discrimination if they are disciplined or dismissed in connection to this in a way that they perceive as unfair.

This also means there is a requirement to make reasonable adjustments, to remove any disadvantages caused by their disability when compared to non-disabled staff. This could involve making changes to the building or premises, altering work hours, or reallocating some duties.

Types of absence

Measuring sickness absence

Perhaps the most important management tool relating to sickness absence is monitoring and measuring to ensure it isn't causing significant costs to your organisation. For instance, you can use absence management software to record and measure sickness absence and create reports to aid with business strategy and decisions.

What patterns emerge from the data; are staff more likely to be off sick on certain days of the week or times of year? Are some staff members taking frequent short absences to a higher degree than others? When you have the absence data in front of you, it's easier to assess the state of sickness absence within your workforce and develop plans to improve sickness absence levels.

It’s also important to consider the reasons for absence – are they connected to the workplace or not? For example, do you have a cluster of employees all ill with stress in one location – is there a management issue? Or perhaps you have multiple factory workers dealing with back pain – is there a Health & Safety issue?

Learn more: How to calculate a sickness absence percentage for employees

Recording sickness absence

Beyond recording sickness absence to analyse patterns that emerge, it's important to do so from a compliance perspective. Particularly in cases where absences are frequent and/or become disruptive to your organisation, you need to have a concrete record to which you can refer.

If an employee brings a claim against an employer in an employment tribunal in relation to sickness absence, the tribunal will expect the employer to have proper records. In addition, proper record keeping is key in personal injury claims. A tribunal would look poorly on an employer who is not able to produce proper, uncontested records.

How to improve sickness absence

There are a range of strategies you can use to manage and improve sickness absence levels; being proactive is key. From making sure your sickness absence policy is forefront to promoting health and wellbeing initiatives for staff, you can have a healthier, happier, better-informed workforce with less need to take time off sick. To find out more, read our article on how to improve sickness absence.



Not all sickness absences are genuine, though the majority of them are; in some cases, absenteeism may be at play.

What is absenteeism?

Absenteeism refers to cases where a worker takes time off work as sickness absence when they are well enough to work. Absentee staff can be a drain on an organisation's finances and resources, as well as a strain on co-workers and managers.

It's important to note, however, that there may be underlying workplace issues causing demotivation and stress. It's better to address these potential issues and your workplace culture instead of only focusing on absentee employees as the crux of the problem.

How to reduce absenteeism

If you suspect a staff member is 'pulling sickies' instead of being genuinely ill, it's useful to consider the reasons why this might be. Is their workload overwhelming or do they not have enough responsibility? Is workplace bullying an issue? Do they have a disability that they feel they can't disclose? Would flexible hours work better with their other commitments, such as childcare?

Once you have learned more about why your staff are feeling stressed and disengaged from work, you can take steps to create a more positive and engaging workplace. For more on this topic, read our post about how to reduce absenteeism at work.

How to discuss absenteeism

How you discuss absenteeism with staff is a key aspect in how you reduce absenteeism across the organisation. We've also written a guide on how to discuss absenteeism with an employee for tips on how to handle sensitive conversations around absence and potential absenteeism.

Presenteeism and leaveism

On the flipside of absenteeism, presenteeism and leaveism are also issues related to absence management. Though they are less known about than absenteeism, both issues have been on the rise over the past few years according to the CIPD.

Presenteeism occurs when someone comes into work when they're too ill to do their job. This can be just as damaging to productivity and morale as absenteeism; the ill person isn't giving themselves time to fully recuperate and may make others ill as well.

Leaveism refers to staff using holiday days or other entitlement schemes (such as flexitime or rest days) when they are sick to the point where time off work would be needed. This can also have a negative effect on productivity and stress levels, as staff are taking annual leave to recuperate instead of relaxing.

Bradford Factor

The Bradford Factor

No overview of absence management is complete without mention of the Bradford Factor. Many organisations use this formula to help manage their absence levels by comparing employee data. Please note, however, that it can only be used as a general measurement and each case of absence should be considered on its own merits, particularly if there are any disability issues involved.

What is the Bradford Factor?

The Bradford Factor is a popular formula employers and HR can use to calculate levels of employee absence and absenteeism. The formula was developed in the 1980s by the Bradford University School of Management.

How does the Bradford Factor work?

The theory behind the Bradford Factor is that short, frequent absences are an indicator of potential absenteeism. So, if an employee has had five days off sick on five separate occasions, instead of five days off on one occasion, their Bradford Factor score will be higher, and therefore more concerning.

Bradford Factor formula

The formula for the Bradford Factor (B) records Number of Occasions Sick (S) x Number of Occasions Sick (S) x Total Number of Days Absent (D). The formula is written as follows:

S² x D = B

Examples of Bradford Factor scores

As an example, if an employee has had 5 days of sickness over 5 separate occasions, their Bradford Factor score would be 5 x 5 x 5 (total: 125). If they have had 5 days of sickness on one occasion, their score would be 1 x 1 x 5 (total: 5). This is quite a difference!

Bradford Factor trigger points

By setting trigger points based on Bradford Factor scores, you can ensure line managers respond in a timely and fair manner to absence issues. According to the Employment Law Clinic, typical trigger point thresholds for the Bradford Factor are as follows:

  • 0-49: No action required
  • 50-214: Consider issuing a verbal warning
  • 125-399: Consider issuing a first written warning
  • 400-649: Consider issuing a final written warning
  • 650+: Consider dismissal

Of course, this is only a guideline and may not always be appropriate depending on the circumstances of an absence or multiple absences.

For instance, you may need to adjust how you use the Bradford Factor formula in relation to an employee with a disability. This can include treating disability-related absences differently so the employee is less likely to surpass Bradford Factor trigger points. We've written an article about the Bradford Factor and disability if you want to find out more about this.

The disadvantages of the Bradford Factor?

The Bradford Factor is a useful way in which to measure and quantify sickness absence levels, but it won’t tell the whole story of how and why patterns of absence are emerging within the organisation, and so employers should always seek to explore absences and the reasons behind them with their employees and medical advisers.

Read our post on Bradford Factor disadvantages to find out how to use the Bradford Factor to its best abilities while avoiding the potential pitfalls of using it without considering the underlying reasons for absence.

Absence management methods

Absence management methods

From policy to procedures, there are methods employers and line managers can use to help manage and reduce unplanned absences within their organisation.

Absence management policy

Your absence management policy should be your first port of call for ensuring your absence management processes and procedures are practical, fair, and consistent. According to Acas guidance, an absence policy should include:

  • Information on the organisation’s absence reporting process
  • When employees need to get a sick note
  • When return to work meetings take place
  • How to keep in touch during an absence
  • How absence is tracked and any trigger points used
  • Whether occupational health or an employee assistance programme (EAP) is available
  • How much the absent employee will be paid in terms of statutory and/or contractual sick pay and for how long

Sickness absence trigger points

As we touched on earlier while discussing the Bradford Factor, setting trigger points can be an effective way to manage absence consistently and fairly. Even if you're not specifically using the Bradford Factor, you can still set up trigger points based on instances or lengths of absence to start absence management procedures.

For instance, you can send a line manager a reminder to obtain a fit note or perform a return to work interview if a worker's sickness surpasses a certain number of days.

Trigger points help you maintain the procedures you have set in your absence management policy to ensure compliance.
Read our article on how to measure sickness absence with trigger points to find out more.

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Absence management procedures

Once you have the policy in place to deal with absence, the next steps to take arise when absence becomes an issue in your organisation. These procedures should be covered within your policy so everyone is on the same page when it comes to how an organisation handles absence.

Return to work interviews

Performing a return to work interview is an effective way to welcome an employee back to work and check if they may need reasonable adjustments, particularly after a long-term absence. For cases of absenteeism, the attentive nature of a return to work interview may discourage future instances.

Acas recommends return to work interviews for every case of absence if this is practical. If you'd like to know more about return to work interviews, we've written a guide on how to conduct a return to work interview as part of your absence management procedures.

Disciplinary procedures for sickness absence

When sickness absence is becoming a more persistent issue and verbal warnings don’t seem to be improving the situation, you may start to consider using more formal disciplinary procedures. It’s important to have a clear and airtight sickness absence policy (sometimes called an attendance policy) to which both parties can refer before doing so, to make sure you have a fair and consistent approach.

This is applicable to other forms of absence too. For example, in cases where employees have unauthorised absences, which can constitute misconduct (one of the 5 fair reasons for dismissal). Non-genuine absence, if provable, can also be counted as a form of misconduct.

Informal vs formal approaches

There are informal and formal ways you can approach an absence issue. An informal approach tends to involve a meeting with the employee where concerns are raised and discussed. The employer may want to issue an informal ‘letter of concern’ to confirm what was discussed and the improvements required from the employee.

Then there is the formal disciplinary process, which you can learn more about in HR expert Kate Marchant’s blog post on disciplinary procedures: a step by step guide for managers.

Written warnings for sickness absence

As part of a formal disciplinary process, you should provide the employee with a written warning about their absence levels (and further warnings over time if absence issues persist). Employees are entitled to be accompanied by a colleague or trade union representative to these meetings. Outlining the issues in writing and asking the employee to agree to the observations made and performance improvements required, you can show that you followed a fair disciplinary process with written evidence.

Formal sickness absence meetings

If sickness absence issues continue, you may want to go beyond a written warning and hold a formal sickness absence meeting to discuss the issue at hand.

A write-up of everything discussed and decisions made should be created and agreed to by the employee in writing. Employees are entitled to be accompanied by a colleague or trade union representative to these meetings.

Dismissal for sickness absence

Dismissal for sickness absence should be a last resort, after all other options for accommodating the employee have been exhausted. Read the Acas Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures to learn more, as this is the minimum that an employer should follow when disciplining an employee (or dealing with a grievance).

Manage staff absence more effectively with HR software

No matter the reason for absence, you can record and monitor your staff attendance with our tailored absence management software.

Our absence management software doesn’t just record absence, it also provides in-depth reports and staff attendance charts, so you can identify patterns and take steps to reduce absence levels.

Myhrtoolkit is here to support you through every aspect of HR management for your small business. To find out more about how myhrtoolkit can help you achieve your business goals, book a demo with one of our advisers today.


The content of this guide does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you seek professional advice before taking action based on this guide.

The content of this guide has been edited and approved by Matthew Ainscough, Employment Lawyer at Bell & Buxton incorporating Ironmonger Curtis. Most recent review date January 19, 2022.