Melin Homes, which owns and manages properties across south Wales describe the approach they took to handling problem sick leave.
Taking a proactive approach to handling problem sick leave
In April 2010 Melin Homes had a sickness absence rate of 6.8 per cent. By January 2014, the rate had fallen to 2.33 per cent, with a rolling average of 2.67 per cent for the previous 12 months.
Sharon Crockett, the housing association's business consultancy assistant director, points to a number of factors behind this dramatic reduction in absence. One was a new sickness policy introduced in 2011. Another was Zest, an employee-driven healthy living programme that scooped the 2012 CIPD People Management award for health and wellbeing. Both initiatives were part of a wider strategy designed to ensure that employees were physically fit, mentally challenged and emotionally fulfilled.
"Careful selection of dedicated and motivated staff has also helped reduce absence," says Kate Buckley, Melin's people and learning manager. "We have staff who are really committed and engaged and that's a major factor because they understand the effect that sickness absence has on organisational delivery," she says.
The aims of the sickness policy
The sickness policy, covering all 231 people employed by Melin Homes, sets out clear procedures for managing staff attendance and ensuring that those who cannot work because of health problems receive the right support. "It's all about consistency," says Crockett. "It's making sure that all managers treat people in the same way and that staff know what to expect."
Attendance figures are monitored on a monthly basis by Melin's leadership group. The leadership also works with the people and learning team to monitor compliance with the sickness policy, which is reviewed every year.
Melin employees accrue annual leave during periods of sickness absence. However, they are expected to inform their manager before going on holiday while on sick leave.
Notifying sickness absence
The notification procedure set out in the sickness policy requires employees to telephone their line manager before 10.00am on the first day of their sickness absence to say that they will not be coming into work and to provide details of their illness. They must speak to their line manager personally or, if that is not possible, to a more senior manager or a member of Melin's people and learning team. Texts, emails and voicemail messages are not accepted as notification methods.
Failure to follow the notification procedure can result in loss of sick pay or disciplinary action.
Keeping in touch
Regular contact with absent employees enables Melin to provide them with support, manage workloads within their teams and assess the likely length of their sickness absence. It also serves as something of a deterrent. "If somebody is not really unwell and considering taking the day off sick, they would probably think twice if they knew they'd have to justify their absence to their manager," says Buckley.
Employees are required to speak to their manager every day during the first week of absence and on a weekly basis during longer periods of absence.
After two weeks of absence, a manager and a member of the people and learning team will pay the employee a welfare visit to discuss what is happening at work and how Melin might facilitate the individual's return to work. Employees are always notified of welfare visits in advance.
Returning to work
Employees are expected to meet their line manager for a return to work interview on their first day back at work after a period of sickness absence. The aims of this interview are to:
- ensure that the employee is fit to return to work
- clarify the reason for the absence
- discuss any support the individual needs, including temporary workplace adjustments and a referral to occupational health
- identify any links between different periods of absence
- arrange further discussion about levels of attendance.
Forms completed by employees after return to work interviews are used for self-certification purposes following absences of up to seven days. For longer periods of sickness absence, employees must provide a 'fit note' from their GP within three days of returning to work or three days of the note's issue date.
The people and learning team is responsible for referring employees who are on long-term sick leave to Melin's occupational health advisor. Employed by an external provider specialising in occupational health, the advisor considers the likely duration of employees' absence and any support that might be provided to ease their return to work.
"We sometimes also refer people to occupational health when they are in work if we are aware of an on-going health issue, such as a serious back problem, so that we can get advice on how we can support them in work and keep them working without sickness," says Crockett.
Melin also pays for counselling services for employees with mental health problems, whether or not these are work-related. Counselling is available both to employees who are on sick leave and those in work, with the length of time it is offered depending on the severity of the individual's condition. "A lot of the time, our methods for dealing with sickness are more preventative than reactive, which is much more effective in the long run," says Crockett.
Persistent short-term absence
Under Melin's original sickness policy, line managers would decide on a case-by-case basis how to deal with frequent, short-term absence. However, when the organisation spoke to HR-inform in February 2014, it was in the process of consulting employees on changing the policy so as to bring greater clarity and consistency to the management of short-term absence. If these proposals are agreed, formal action will be triggered when employees are absent on three separate occasions within a six-month period or if their attendance record gives cause for concern.
Managers will still retain some discretion but in most cases will be expected to hold an informal discussion covering:
- the employee's sickness absence record
- reasons for the individual's absences
- the impact of these absence on the employee's team and the business as a whole
- whether further absences are likely to occur in the future
- any support that Melin can offer to facilitate regular attendance
- targets and timescales for improvements in attendance.
Managers will also need to make clear to employees that a formal disciplinary procedure may be instigated unless their attendance improves.
If there is no improvement in attendance the employee will be given at least three working days' notice of a formal absence review meeting where the matter may be escalated under Melin's disciplinary and dismissal procedure. Consultations on changes to this procedure were also underway in early 2014. However, the revised procedure is likely to consist of the following three stages:
Stage 1: absence review meeting - first written warning
Stage 2: absence review meeting - final written warning
Stage 3: dismissal
Employees will have the right to appeal against the outcome of any meeting held as part of this disciplinary process. Appeals hearings will be chaired by a manager more senior than the one who determined the outcome of previous review meetings.
Crockett stresses that Melin takes disciplinary action in relation to absence only as a last resort. "The intention is that we would try and support staff as much as we could to prevent things getting to this stage," she says.
Management and staff training
Training to help managers implement the sickness policy is an ongoing process. Following an initial briefing when the policy was first launched, monthly management team meetings are used to clarify managers' responsibilities and to provide updates on any changes to the policy.
Melin has also run absence management workshops for all staff to ensure they know what to expect if they take sick leave and to clear up any misunderstandings.
Promoting health and wellbeing
In addition to reacting to sickness absence, Melin takes a proactive approach to helping employees stay fit and well. Employees themselves are closely involved in this process. So, while Buckley's team has overall responsibility for the housing association's health and wellbeing strategy, a working group made up of representatives from all departments plays a key role in delivering the strategy and, in particular, the Zest programme.
Activities offered as part of this programme since 2011 have included:
- hypnotherapy for smoking cessation and weight loss
- alcohol, drug abuse and stress awareness training
- swimming lessons at a local leisure centre
- diabetes, cancer and stroke awareness sessions
- 'taste buddies' sessions on healthy cooking on a budget
- reiki, yoga, reflexology and meditation
- taster sessions for belly dancing, kettle bells, spinning and self-defence
- a cycle to work scheme
- staff walking, running, cycling and swimmings groups
- free fruit and nutrition awareness
- a staff choir - called Zing - that meets every week and has proved a popular way of helping employees deal with stress.
Judges at the 2012 CIPD awards described the Zest programme as "outstanding", noting that Melin's entry demonstrated "how wellbeing has been embedded within the organisation's culture, values and mission".
All legal information in this case study is correct at the date of publication. For the most up to date law in this area, click on the ‘employment law information’ link in the Further information section below.